Terry O’Neill, Iconic British Photographer, Dies at 81

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Terry O'Neill

O'Neill worked with and photographed famous faces in music, film and celebrity including The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Faye Dunaway, Elton John and Frank Sinatra.

Terry O’Neill, a photographer known for capturing the 1960s culture through his work, died Saturday in his home in London after battling prostate cancer, Iconic Images confirmed. He was 81. 

"It is with a heavy heart that Iconic Images announces the passing of Terence 'Terry' O’Neill, CBE," the agency, which represents O'Neill's work, shared Sunday on Twitter. "As one of the most iconic photographers of the last 60 years, his legendary pictures will for ever remain imprinted in our memories, as well as in our hearts and minds."

Recognized as one of the world's most collected photographers, O'Neill began his career at the birth of the 1960s, chronicling the emerging faces of film, fashion and music that would go on to define the Swinging Sixties era.

O'Neill famously captured images of figures such as Winston Churchill, Nelson Mandela, Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, future wife Faye Dunaway and Audrey Hepburn. He was also one of the first photographers to work with then new franchise star Sean Connery as James Bond (O’Neill went on to work on several Bond films throughout the decades). O'Neill also photographed The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, as well as photographed backstage reportage with David Bowie, Elton John, Eric Clapton and Chuck Berry. 

John paid tribute to O'Neill on Twitter, where he praised the late photographer. "Terry O'Neill took the most iconic photographs of me throughout the years, completely capturing my moods. He was brilliant, funny and I absolutely loved his company. A real character who has now passed on. RIP you wonderful man. Love, Elton," the singer-songwriter wrote on Twitter alongside a photo O'Neill took of him. 

O'Neill was born on July 30, 1938, in London. Growing up, he expected to become a priest, but would later grow aspirations to become a jazz drummer. While an aspiring drummer, O'Neill landing a job at a photographic unit at BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation), which would later become British Airways. Working alongside photographer Peter Campion, O'Neill would take photographs of people arriving and departing at the terminals, eventually taking an iconic photograph of then Home Secretary Rab Butler, dressed and asleep on a bench.

The image helped O'Neill land a job as a newspaper photographer on Fleet Street, where he was assigned to capture the portrait of then-newcomer band The Beatles.

"I was asked to go down to Abbey Road Studios and take a few portraits of this new band. 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," O'Neill said as quoted by Iconic Images.

Following his work with that group, he was called by Andrew Loog Oldham, the young manager just starting out with his new band, The Rolling Stones. Following his work with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, O’Neill would go on to visually define the 1960s by working with famous faces in music, film and celebrity including Michael Caine, Elizabeth Taylor, Terence Stamp, Jean Shrimpton, Tom Jones and Amy Winehouse and ending the decade with Sinatra.

O'Neill also famously photographed the Queen of England twice. He revealed in a 2001 interview on BBC Radio 4' Desert Island Discs that he managed to make the Queen smile during their second photo shoot in 1992 by telling her a horse-racing joke. "The second time was great," O'Neill said. "It was in a bad year, as she put it. And I just got her to laugh because I noticed the first time when she laughed, she made a great picture."

As the '60s ended, O’Neill continued to be one of the most sought-after photographers in the world, working with Roger Moore, Paul Newman, Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford.

He focused the last decades of his life on exhibiting, publishing and discussing his work.

O’Neill was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Centenary Medal in 2011 in recognition of his significant contribution to the art of photography and an Honorary Fellowship of The Society. Earlier this year, he was also awarded a Commander of the British Empire (CBE) for services to Photography in this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours list.