Terry O'Neill: The Persistent and Invisible Photographer

Image post: Terry O'Neill: The Persistent and Invisible Photographer

The Persistent and Invisible Photographer

By Pablo Burgués All photos: ©Terry O´Neill / Iconic Images / courtesy MONDO

Once upon a time, there was a young Englishman named Terry O'Neill who wanted to become the best jazz drummer in the world, despite jazz being a genre with fewer choruses than the Spanish national anthem. It was the 1950s, and our friend dreamed of going to New York to learn from the masters of the genre. However, Ryanair had not been invented yet, and tickets, like airplanes, were sky-high.

One morning, while having tea with baked beans (good old beans with ketchup), the young man came up with a way to go back and forth to the Jazz capital for free: he decided to become a flight attendant for an airline. He got to work, and a few weeks later, he experienced the famous roller-coaster of emotions: he got a job contract with British Airways (high point), but they confused his position, and instead of a flight attendant, they made him an airport photographer (low point).

Young O'Neill had no clue about photography, so he bought four magazines on the subject and, with more fear than shame, started taking pictures. One day, while strolling through Heathrow Airport, he found a chubby man in a suit sleeping in a waiting room. The man was surrounded by a group of Africans in tribal attire, and the scene seemed so quirky to him that he took a photo. The chubby guy turned out to be Rab Butler, the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and the image was such a hit that O'Neill said "goodbye" to British Airways and began working as a photographer for the London tabloid Daily Sketch.

During that time, in the early 1960s, photographers still used large and heavy cameras. O'Neill found these contraptions too cumbersome, so he went to a flea market and bought a 35mm camera, not knowing that this cheap item would eventually turn him into a photography legend. The small size and ease of use of this type of camera allowed him to move stealthily among his subjects, become invisible, and capture them with a naturalness and freshness never seen before.

It was in the backyard of Abbey Road Studios, where the band was recording their first album. That snapshot was so cool that it became the first published photograph of a rock band in the press. This catapulted The Beatles to success and also O'Neill himself, who, following the "I see what works" principle, started working with the most powerful bands of the moment: the Rolling Stones, Bowie, Led Zeppelin, Elvis Presley, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, or Frank Sinatra, whom he became so obsessed with that he photographed him for 30 years.

Persistence was another one of O'Neill's great strengths. Before taking a picture, he could spend days, weeks, or even years with an artist, so they would eventually become friends. This made the subjects relax in the presence of the photographer, forget their carefully rehearsed mega-cool star poses, and be themselves.

So, that's the story of Terry O'Neill, a guy who never fulfilled his dream of becoming a jazz percussionist but turned unknown figures into legends and made rock and roll the most freaking awesome music on the planet.

At Concept Hotel Group, we will be eternally grateful for that, and as a tribute, three of his most amazing photos will be forever and ever displayed on the walls of our Dorado hotel: The Beatles in the courtyard of Abbey Road Studios (room 409), Bruce Springsteen strolling down Sunset Boulevard (room 403), and the Queen band during one of their early studio photoshoots (room 405)."

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