Terry O’Neill, one the world’s most admired and important photographers, has been creating unforgettable images since he first photographed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones when they were unknowns. In a candid interview with Parade.com, O’Neill opened up about his extraordinary career, his thoughts on the paparazzi, and surprising details about some of his most famous photo subjects.Ava Gardner, Marilyn Monroe, Lana Turner
Here are the highlights:
You’ve photographed some of the greatest movie beauties. Do beautiful women, like Ava Gardner, know they’re beautiful?
“No. Beautiful women see all their flaws, not their assets. I said to Ava, ‘You are definitely the most beautiful of women.’ She said, ‘Oh, shut up.’ I said to Michelle Pfeiffer one day, ‘You’re stunning!’ She said, ‘Oh, don’t be silly.’ Liz Taylor wouldn’t have it, either. She never believed it. Audrey Hepburn didn’t. You tell them that they’re beautiful, but they just don’t see it. But, of course, when you get to know them, like when you’re married to them, all the lust wears off and you’re face to face with [just] a human being.
“[The actresses of the ’50s] were better than today. Ava Gardner, Lana Turner, Marilyn Monroe, all of them were stunning. Now, they all seem the same. The only one who really stands out is Angelina Jolie, a different class of girl altogether. She’s a stunning, beautiful woman, a rarity, though.”
Your reputation rests on your ability to capture famous people as they truly are, like your early portraits of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
“Neither group was famous then. I took the Beatles first newspaper picture [in 1963, with the release of their first album, Please Please Me]. It sold out the newspaper. The group I liked was the Rolling Stones. [The newspaper editors] thought the Stones look like prehistoric monsters. I photographed them. It was the start of pop pictures in newspapers.”
Did you become friends with the Beatles and the Stones?
“Yes. Back in the ’60s we used to talk about what jobs we were going to get when all this was over. We were all convinced it was never going to last. It was incredible. We couldn’t believe you got money for doing what you loved doing. The Beatles used to be up all day, like normal people. But later they were all living at night and sleeping during the day, because they’re taking drugs and they’re out of it. It was a joke. Drugs are the biggest bloody sickness in the world. It’s caused havoc with everything.”
You photographed singer Amy Winehouse shortly before her death two years ago.
“I was really shocked when Amy died. She was one of the very few people I ever wanted to photograph. I thought this girl had a talent to be a really great jazz singer, not pop singer. Drugs and drink are a major disaster. I don’t know why people can’t handle it.”
You had a relationship with Martha Stewart.
“I’ve never met a more wonderful woman in my life, but I met her too soon after I broke up with Faye. Martha treated me like a king. And I couldn’t believe it. She was so kind to me. It was all too much. I just wasn’t used to it. One day I couldn’t take it. I just wanted to get away and breathe for a while on my own.”
Is she controlling?
“No, not at all. I thought, ‘What a perfect wife she’d be.’ It was that I’d just come out of a bad marriage [to Dunaway]. That was the problem. And I ran. I waited until Martha went out, and I got the car [from her Connecticut estate] to the airport and went home. I didn’t even talk to her for a couple of months. I was ashamed. I never said goodbye. I just didn’t know how to deal with it. I behaved badly.