Terry O’Neill’s new book Every Picture Tells A Story showcases many of his most famous portraits and the stories behind them. He spoke to Steve Fairclough about his stellar career

If you named a major celebrity from the early 1960s onwards – from the worlds of music, cinema, sport, politics, fashion or royalty – the chances are that Terry O’Neill will have photographed them. For the first time a compendium of his most striking imagery has been brought together in one volume – Every Picture Tells A Story – that gives a unique insight into his creative process and the personalities of the superstars he shot. O’Neill recently took time out to talk to Amateur Photographer about some of the photographs in what he describes as ‘a book of all my best pictures, telling the full story of how they were done – the whole shebang behind them all’.

Elton John – Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles, October 1975

‘There are only a few people I’d call a genius. Frank Sinatra was a genius and Bowie certainly was. Elton John, in my opinion, will be regarded in the same breath as Beethoven. He is an incredible showman but as a composer, songwriter, singer and piano player his music will live on for hundreds of years. Arguably his most famous concert was his two-day performance at Dodger Stadium, Los Angeles in 1975. More than 100,000 people were there and I was the official photographer. I ran around like crazy for those two days trying to get every imaginable shot and angle, and Elton was on true form. People forget how big he was in 1975 – he was having number- one hits, number-one albums and selling out stadiums. All the times I worked with Elton are some of the most memorable moments of my career. To have that sort of close relationship between photographer and subject… it just doesn’t happen now. Everything is too controlled. Back then we were all just working hard and tried to have a bit of fun when we could.’

Brigitte Bardot – On the set of The Legend of Frenchie King, 1971

Terry O'Neill Brigitte Bardot

‘It was a windy day and Bardot was standing and waiting to film a scene. I was just wandering around the set looking for opportunities and taking a few photos here and there. I noticed she kept brushing the hair out of her eyes. I thought if I could get a close-up of that moment when the wind would blow her trademark hair into her eyes, combined with the cigarette dangling from those lips, that it would capture how sexy, strong and wild her image was. I didn’t have many frames left, so I went in close… but no wind. Then, on the last shot of the roll, the wind blew and I clicked the shutter. Magic pictures happen when the combination of an idea, patience and luck occur at once. This was decades before digital photography so I had no idea if that image would match the photo I had in my mind until the film was developed. Even now I still get chills just remembering the first time I saw these images. I’m certain I was in love with her but she couldn’t speak a lick of English and I didn’t speak French. So, regrettably, our relationship was only between my camera and her beauty.’

Nelson Mandela – London, June 2008

Terry O'Neill Nelson Mandela

‘To be asked to take photos at Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday celebration at Hyde Park, London, in 2008 was one of the greatest honours of my life. I met Nelson Mandela at his hotel and I took some beautiful candids of him relaxing and a wonderful portrait with his wife, Graça Machel. It was all such a whirlwind. I knew I was privy to a historic moment and I was with one of the most important people alive. You could just feel his presence in the room. I tried hard to remember I was there with a job to do! As guests arrived I took more photos, including President Clinton, Oprah Winfrey, David Cameron, Gordon Brown and other “larger than life” figures. When it was time to leave, and we said our goodbye, I nearly burst into tears. I realised that I was with one of the greatest human beings of the past 100 years… [maybe] 1,000 years. It was a very emotional moment for me.’

Frank Sinatra – On set, backstage and in concert

Terry O'Neill Frank Sinatra

‘I started to work with Frank as a set photographer on several of his films, starting with Lady in Cement in 1968. I can’t tell you how nervous I was to be working with him but afterwards he said, “Right, you’re with me.” I was suddenly granted access to his world. For the first few weeks he completely ignored me and that was the best education I could ever have had. I realised that was the secret – a great photographer is never seen working. It all needs to look effortless. I also had the opportunity to take shots of Frank backstage and performing. What I especially love about these shots, including this one, is not how all eyes are on Frank but how the spotlights are perfectly placed – an audience in rapture with the lights shining from above. Sinatra gave me a great gift – time and access. It was incredible being with him and I treasure the moments and the photos that I was able to take. Frank taught me how to be a photographer – he was a fabulous bloke to work with.’

Muhammad Ali – Dublin, 1972

Terry O'Neill Muhammad Ali

‘Muhammad Ali was in Dublin training for a fight against Alvin Lewis. I flew over to take photographs and interview him for the Daily Express. Ali was a funny type of bloke – either all giving or saying nothing. When I started to ask questions, he swore and said, “Are you writing a book on me?” His brother said, “No, he’s just asking really interesting questions.” I was asking what type of music and books he liked but he was suspicious because no one had asked him those type of questions before. He was a magnetic character in person; already a legend – they just don’t make them like that any more.’

Faye Dunaway – Los Angeles, 29 March 1977

Terry O'Neill Faye Dunaway

‘We met a few weeks before and struck up a friendship. She was favourite to win an Oscar for her performance in Network. I knew this type of opportunity would be rare and I was given the chance to create an image of a strikingly beautiful, immensely talented actor on the cusp of a career-defining moment, and a life-changing event. These were the days before a dozen press agents would have gotten in the way. I wanted to capture that moment when the star wakes up and it dawns on them that, overnight, they’ve not only become a star, but also a millionaire. This is that moment of realisation.’

Raquel Welch – Hollywood, 1966

Terry O'Neill Raquel Welch

‘In 1966 I went to the filming of One Million Years B.C. Raquel was still a bit shy about being filmed in her now infamous fur bikini and told me she thought that she’d be “crucified” by the press for it. I thought, “That’s it!” I somehow got 20th Century Fox Studios to set up a giant crucifix for me and I took a series of shots, in colour and black-and-white, from different angles. They were beautiful shots but we both looked at them once the film was developed and got a little nervous. I was brought up Catholic and studied to be a priest for a while. I feared people might think the wrong thing so I decided not to publish the photos… About 30 years later Robin Morgan, editor of The Sunday Times Magazine, found these photos in a box in my studio – he thought they were extraordinary, so we decided to use them. This is now one of my most reproduced [set of] images. A lot of people forget that, unlike today, the photo you see is the photo we took.’

Steve McQueen – An awkward meeting in Hollywood

Terry O'Neill Steve McQueen

‘I am always asked, “Who was the worst person you have photographed?”. I’ve been lucky in my career and I would never say anything really negative about anyone… except in the case of Steve McQueen! He’s a great actor and maybe I just caught him at the wrong time. I’d arranged to do a photo shoot with him at his office in Hollywood. I turned up at the building, met the PA and in we went. As soon as we opened the door to his office I could tell this wasn’t going to go well. Instinct kicked in and I started snapping! Apparently, he didn’t know I was going to come that day and sure enough he started yelling at us to get out. I was just taking photos of anything I could get in focus. I had a lot of colour film so I was just trying to zoom in on his hands, eyes, ears… whatever I saw through the lens. I left in a hurry and didn’t get too many shots.’

The book Every Picture Tells A Story by Terry O’Neill, which includes many previously unseen photographs, is published by ACC Editions (ISBN: 978-1-85149-833-8), with an RRP of £30. To find out more visit www.accartbooks.com.

Terry O'Neill Every Picture Tells a Story

Since the early 1960s Terry O’Neill has shot unique portraits of many of the world’s most famous people. While working for an airline’s photographic unit his career took off when his picture of a sleeping politician was published in The Daily Sketch. He moved into newspapers and documented the explosion of 1960s youth culture, including the rise of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, as well as photographing major names from the worlds of cinema, politics and sport. His photographs have been exhibited around the world and, now aged 78, he is still busy working on his archive, books and exhibition projects. To find out more, go to www.iconicimages.net