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Terry O’Neill: Acclaimed photographer of the Swinging Sixties dead at 81

Photographer Terry O’Neill, who created some of the most enduring images of the Swinging Sixties, has died at the age of 81.

Terence “Terry” O’Neill passed away quietly at home on Saturday after a long illness, according to a statement from his publisher Iconic Images. He had prostate cancer, The Guardian reports.

“Terry was a class act, quick witted and filled with charm,” the statement read.

“Anyone who was lucky enough to know or work with him can attest to his generosity and modesty. As one of the most iconic photographers of the last 60 years, his legendary pictures will forever remain imprinted in our memories as well as in our hearts and minds.”

O’Neill chronicled the biggest cultural figures of the 1960s and beyond, which includes The Beatles and David Bowie to Queen Elizabeth II and Winston Churchill.

Born in London, England, in 1938, aspiring drummer O’Neill took a job with British Airways in the hope that he could travel to New York City and play the jazz clubs there in between work.

When there were no flight attendant jobs available, he was advised to take a position in the photography department.

Part of his work was to photograph travellers arriving and departing. He was able to snap a photo of then Home Secretary Rab Butler wearing a bowler hat and taking a nap in departures. The image was picked up by a newspaper he would go on to work for, for several years.

O’Neill’s rise coincided with the emergence of musicians who went on to define the 60s and he was there to chronicle it all.

“I was asked to go down to Abbey Road Studios and take a few portraits of this new band,” O’Neill said.

“I didn’t know how to work with a group, but because I was a musician myself and the youngest on-staff by a decade, I was always the one they’d ask. I took the four young lads outside for better light.

“That portrait ran in the papers the next day and the paper sold out. That band became the biggest band in the world; The Beatles.”

Following his work with The Beatles, O’Neill was called by Andrew Loog Oldham, manager of The Rolling Stones, for a photoshoot.

Hel worked with a who’s who of music and film celebrities, including Michael Caine, Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Terence Stamp, Jean Shrimpton, Tom Jones and Frank Sinatra.

“Terry was a ‘historian’ whose camera captured the resurgence and energy of this revolution,” Caine said.

“I can think of no other photographer who has contributed so much to our heritage.”

As the 1960s ended, O’Neill was one of the most sought-after photographers in the world, working with Brigitte Bardot, Roger Moore, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford.

O’Neill took it upon himself to seek out Elton John, a rising young star, after hearing him on the radio in 1971.

And in late 1973, O’Neill was invited to a club in London for a closed-set last performance of Ziggy Stardust by David Bowie for American television. This invite would result in several legendary photo sessions.

An image of his future wife Faye Dunaway, the morning after winning the 1977 Academy Award for Best Actress, would also bring him widespread acclaim.

O’Neill, who did not know the actor, convinced the star to meet him at the pool of the Beverly Hills Hotel at dawn if she won.

As the 21st century began, O’Neill focused the last decades of his life on exhibiting, publishing and discussing his work.

“I love meeting people at events, whether that be exhibition openings or book signings – I never imagined the work I did more than 50 years ago would mean so much to people today,” O’Neill said.

He was awarded the Royal Photographic Society centenary medal in 2011 in recognition of his significant contribution to the art of photography.

“No other photographer worked the frontline of fame for so long and with such panache,” said Robin Morgan, chief executive of Iconic Images.

“Terry chronicled the cultural landscape for six decades. They all dropped their guard to his mischief, charm and wit. It explains why so many of his subjects remained lifelong friends.

“By the end of his life his work was hanging in more than 40 galleries and museums around the world.”

Earlier this year, O’Neill was made a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for services to photography in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

O’Neill noted at the time that it was “a huge honour. And I’m incredibly humbled by it.”

“It’s a real recognition for the art of photography, as well,” he said.

“This isn’t just for me of course, it’s for everyone who has helped me along the way. Thank you, from the bottom of my heart.”




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