Photographer Terry O’Neill has made a career from a level of celebrity access that most photographers can only dream of. Long before paparazzi and tabloids took over, O’Neill elegantly captured revealing and candid moments in the lives of his famous subjects.
O’Neill first got his start snapping celebrities as they passed through London’s Heathrow Airport in the late 1950s, but he become famous by documenting the fashion scene of the swinging city. Over the next half-century, he photographed some of the biggest names in music – from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Liza Minnelli – yet it was his 40-year relationship with Frank Sinatra that produced some of the most iconic images of the photographer’s career, and ever captured of the singer.
This month, the new book “Sinatra: Frank & Friendly” and the exhibition “Just Frank” celebrate the photographer’s intimate images of the superstar.—Heather Corcoran
Describe your relationship with Frank Sinatra. Is it true that actress Ava Gardner introduced you?
TO: Yes, she did. She wrote a letter for me and I walked on the set [of “Lady in Cement”] and he just read the letter – I wish I’d known what was in the letter – and he said, “Bloke, you’re with me.” And he just pretended I wasn’t there from then on. I worked with him intermittently over 40 years. I promised him I’d do this book one day, and I never really got around to it, so I just got everything all together now and sort of repaid him by doing the book.
A lot of the images have never been published before. Why now?
TO: I don’t know. I’ve sort of semi-retired. I just had time to get all the pictures together, I never had them all organized before, you see.
How many photos are in the book?
TO: Over a hundred.
What was the experience like putting this book together and rediscovering all these images?
TO: It was really interesting, because I’d forgotten a lot of the pictures that I’d taken. It was good to see them all printed up and put together in a book form.
When you originally took the photographs, were they were intended for print?
TO: I used to give out all the pictures to newspapers and magazines, whoever wanted them.
You had unprecedented access to Sinatra. How did his public image differ from his private persona?
TO: He was the most painstaking … he was brilliant at rehearsals. I mean he really worked at the singing. He wasn’t that casual character that comes on the set; he really worked at it. And he really cared a lot about the music and the musicians and everything; he was exemplary.
And he just let you capture everything that happened?
TO: It’s the greatest compliment someone can pay you; if they just totally ignore you and pretend you’re not there. It’s the greatest working way for a photographer. After a while, so familiarity didn’t breed contempt, I didn’t – I could have developed a friendship with him, but I kept it as photographer-subject. I could see, as it went on, I didn’t want to be in his pocket. I wanted to be able to state what I wanted to say myself.
Could you describe the relationship between photographer and subject?
TO: With someone like Frank, it’s great because he just makes like you’re not there. Some people, they’re very conscious of the camera, but he just carried on like you weren’t there, which is the greatest thing that can happen to you because it gives you total access.
Is it possible for a photographer to have such a close relationship with a celebrity today?
TO: The PRs don’t allow you access to them. You always have to shoot them in a hotel or in a studio. You can’t spend time around them when they’re working, which is the most interesting pictures of all, I think. But you never see anything like that now, it’s all paparazzi stuff. It’s sunk to a very low level.
Do you think digital photography has anything to do with that?
TO: It only makes it easier for the paparazzi to take pictures; that’s all. They don’t actually take pictures; they just sort of press a motorized camera.
In addition to shooting a lot of performers, you’ve been a musician yourself?
TO: Yes, I used to be a jazz musician – jazz drummer.
What does music mean to you?
Of all the images you’ve ever shot, is there any that stands out as a favorite? Do you have a favorite person you’ve ever worked with?
TO: It all changes day to day. I don’t really have a favorite [photograph].
Sinatra was probably the greatest man I’ve ever photographed. I mean, he was an exceptional man and really classy guy. And you had to be the best to work with him, he didn’t suffer fools gladly. It was an honor actually.
“Just Frank” opens at Millennia Fine Art on Oct. 3. Time Warner Center, 10 Columbus Circle, Fourth Floor, 212-823-9512.
“Sinatra: Frank & Friendly” (Evans Mitchell Books), $50, is out this month.