My favorite photography book of 2013 was probably Steve Schapiro’s Taxi Driver, but one of the most surprising was Terry O’Neill’s eponymous career retrospective published by ACC Editions.
O’Neill first made his mark in the 1960′s. The young British photographer snapped everyone from The Beatles to The Stones to Janis Joplin to Jean Luc Godard’s then-muse, Anna Karina. The stunning black-and-white portrait of Brigitte Bardot that graces the book’s cover is pure O’Neill — an iconic image of celebrity from the era he helped to define.
However, in another sense, Bardot’s sexy, open lips barely balancing a raggedy cigar seem posed in light of the fact that O’Neill helped to pioneer a more candid, off-the-cuff style of star-snapping that stripped away glamor and glitz in favor of instants of intimacy. And while some contemporary photographers use similar techniques to demean their subjects, O’Neill caught rock stars backstage and film icons in their trailers in a manner that brought human depth to their two-dimensional images.
Given the hit-and-run paparazzi photographs we see today, O’Neill’s images stand-out for their proximity to their subjects and the details that nearness reveals. An essay by fashion editor and music author Dylan Jones recounts O’Neill’s days as a young drummer in a jazz band. As the photographer recalls, “When I was playing jazz I was always part of the rhythm section…while the stars were up front, so I got accustomed to dealing with egos…” Perhaps that’s the key to O’Neill’s success: a sense of timing, and the good discretion to capture the limelight by staying out of it.
Here’s O’Neill at an exhibition of his work, speaking with the Irish Examiner about his early days as a musician and a photographer: