TERRY O’NEILL: THE INTERVIEW
: Mr. O’Neill, your shot of Bowie with the big ‘diamond dog’ is probably the second most famous photo in rock history. Do you know perchance which is the first one?! TO: I’ve heard that – that my shot of David Bowie with the leaping dog is considered one of the best. I don’t know what the best one is – everyone probably has a different answer to that question. The first image that springs to my mind is that great photograph of Jimi Hendrix burning the guitar on-stage at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 – taken by Ed Caraeff. Caraeff was only 17 when he took that shot.
: : You met – and worked with – an incredible number of celebrities through different decades. If I think to one of my favourite singers or actors you have probably portayed all of them. Is there anyone you wanted to photograph but you didn’t?
TO: I never got the chance to photograph Marilyn Monroe. I was just a few years too late for that one. I would have loved that opportunity.
: Although you photographed several movie stars you have been strictly involved into the cinema industry just twice: as an executive producer (Mommy Dearest, 1981) and as a still photographer (Aria, 1987). Have you ever thought to work more in that field or wasn’t it your cup of tea?
TO: It really wasn’t my cup of tea, as you say. I loved being behind the camera and capturing the moments. I didn’t really enjoy everything that came with stepping in front of the camera, I was much more comfortable behind it. I did enjoy doing on-set photography though, because in those days the motion picture companies really needed photographers like me to come along and help get the film press. The shots I got from the sets went a long way in securing coverage for those films. And, of course, it afforded me the opportunity to work with a whole host of legendary stars – from Audrey Hepburn to Sean Connery, Michael Caine to Brigitte Bardot. Those were unforgettable experiences.
: Some months ago I visited your exhibition ICONS at Palazzo Forti, in Verona. It was like an incredible time travel, in particular through the Sixties and the Seventies. Then I entered into the room with twelve incredible images of David Bowie and for a moment my heart stopped to beat. The atmosphere of the museum was perfect and it impressed me: for example the choice of the lights, but also everything else around there. Do you usually like to be involved with all the aspects of every single exhibition?
TO: I have a fabulous team that I work with at Iconic Images (http://www.iconicimages.net) and I trust them completely. When exhibits are in the works, I work with them and the curator to help decide which images are going to be best, depending on the show or theme of what they – the gallery or museum – want to achieve. It’s a real collaborative effort. That’s great you went to see the exhibit in Verona! They did a fantastic job.
: What are your feelings when you watch those images of David, so distant in the past? Are they predominantly linked to the techinal aspects of your profession or to more personal emotional sensations?
TO: I think it’s a bit of both now, really. I remember everything about being at the Marquee that day in October nearly, what, more than 40 years ago now. It was a really long day because of all the cameras and making sure the television people were getting the right shots and all that. And Bowie was an absolute professional and had to perform each song several times in order to get the right shots. But now, especially looking at this book (BOWIE BY O’NEILL) – there are so many images included in the book that I havent seen in decades. New pulls from contact sheets, images I never printed before. Looking at this book, it felt like I was right there again.
Technically, when I look at those Diamond Dogs images – the leaping dog – I laugh because it was one of those cases where it just happened. We had this giant dog next to David and when the strobe light went off – the dog jumped. Well everyone in the studio was startled – I was hidden behind the camera – and David didn’t move a muscle.
: Your shots of David with Elizabeth Taylor are astonishing. I know the problems of that session: David arrived very late and the actress got nervous. But watching the photos it seems that they found a good complicity. Was Elizabeth only acting?
TO: No, she wasn’t acting. I don’t think. Elizabeth Taylor was one of the most beautiful, glamourous and charming people I’ve ever met. She really wanted to meet David – she was suggesting he be cast in a few film she was working on. So when he did finally arrive, she jumped right in, took control of the photo shoot – telling him where to pose, how, passing his hat back and forth – she was just a total professional and knew better than anyone how to work a camera.
: How ‘bloody hell’ has they discovered the forgotten frames of David with William Burroughs? Could you please tell anything about that strange meeting?
TO: By this time, I worked with David a few times and we just really got along. He called me up and said “Terry, come over to the office, because there’s someone I want you to meet.” And off I went. To be honest, I didn’t know who this older guy was, but I could tell David was practically in awe of the gentleman. I took a few portraits of them standing side-by-side and that was it. Later, when the images were used in a really large, multi-page feature in Rolling Stone magazine, did I realize that it was William Burroughs, the acclaimed American Beat writer, famous for Naked Lunch!
: You defined David as “curious”, “talented” and a “very classy man”. Was there any hidden aspects of his private persona you could tell us that his fans do not know?
TO: I don’t think so – I mean, he was very generous, in particular with his time. I never saw him be short with anyone, meaning, he always had time for fans, especailly. You can see that in some of the stage shots I took – the days before they’d put what seems like a mile between the audience and the stage – David was always leaning down to speak to the fans directly, sign autographs, touch hands. That doesn’t happen today.
: You, as David, came from the tradional England but in the ’70s you both lived in the U.S.A. and experienced the excesses of American life. Bowie in his last album sang to “see” and “run to” the “English evergreens” (Dollar Days, NdR). How strong could it be the nostalgia for the country of origin?
TO: England is home to me. And even though I did live in America for a time and worked extensiveily world-wide, as did David, I think there’s nothing like coming home again. It’s where your heart is, isn’t it?
: Which is your favourite ‘mask’ of Bowie?
I think my favourite shots, are when I had the opportunity to photograph David – not David Bowie. So the images I was able to capture with him with Elizabeth Taylor or William Burroughs, that was just David meeting someone he admired. I also took a few snaps when I attended Peter Seller’s 50th birthday party in Los Angeles. David was there and he – along with Joe Cocker, Ronnie Woods, Bill Wyman and Keith Moon – started to play together. David was playing the saxophone. That was great!
: Some days ago I browsed your new book BOWIE BY O’NEILL in the factory where it is produced (Bergamo, Italy). It is absolutely amazing, an incredible product. Every copy is a fine piece of art. Really expensive indeed. But I was thinking that probably art has to be more accessible for the masses. And you?
TO: I think art, photography should be available for anyone – whether its the high-end collector or someone wanting a print for their home. That’s why exhibits work so well – its a chance for people to experience photography in a museum-like or gallery setting.
: I think we all agree that David’s last album is an incredible masterpiece. What do you think about?
TO: David was always surprising people with his music – from the very first recording to the outtakes or ‘lost’ recordings to the very last one. He was always trying to push the boundaries, never afraid of trying something new, going in a different direction. He never rested and that’s why his talent, his genius will live on.
You can read our review of BOWIE BY O’NEILL here: https://www.davidbowieblackstar.it/bowie-by-oneill-la-recensione/
Interview conceived and conducted by Matteo Tonolli (with Elena Mattirolo)
[Thanks to Federica Beretta!]