Behind the camera with Terry O’Neill



July 19, 2018

This month marks the culmination of the V&A’s touring exhibition David Bowie Is, which has been seen by 2 million people across the world. It also coincides with legendary photographer Terry O’Neill’s 80th birthday.

Terry O’Neill was born in London’s east end in July 1938. From 1963, he worked for titles including Vogue and Rolling Stone as a fashion and portrait photographer, with his work covering everyone from pop stars in the 1960s and ’70s, to  Prime Ministers in the ’80s and ’90s.

To mark the end of our spectacular exhibition (and of course, Terry O’Neill’s birthday), we caught up with him on the phone and asked if he could share the stories behind some of his most iconic prints (which are also available to buy online).

David Bowie in Los Angeles by Terry O’Neill

Terry O’Neill on David Bowie in Los Angeles

He was just a natural in front of the camera – of course, the same holds true for his stage performances. But for photos, he knew how to pose – he would often stretch out or create some sort of interesting shape with his arms or legs.

These were taken in 1974, while we were both in Los Angeles. He was there on tour for Diamond Dogs and asked if I would come along and take photos of him on-stage, too. There was no one else like him. I always thought he was an actor – and with every performance, every album – he’d create a new role and character.

 
David Bowie and William Burroughs by Terry O’Neill

O’Neill’s portrait of David Bowie and William Burroughs

I was in London and the phone rang. It was David Bowie. He said ‘There’s someone I want you to meet – can you come to the office?’ If David Bowie calls you and wants to introduce you to someone, well, you knew it was going to be good. When I went to the office, we were introduced – but his name didn’t really ring any bells with me. I could tell David really admired this older gentleman, so I took some photos of the pair together. Later, I gave David one of the test prints and he drew all over it, writing ‘2 Wild Boys’ and hand-coloured the image.  When the photo ran in Rolling Stone magazine – along with a long interview between David Bowie and William Burroughs – it made complete sense!  Of course, Naked Lunch!

David Bowie in Yellow Suit by Terry O'Neill

The infamous yellow suit and scissors portrait

This was done for a magazine in 1974. He was doing promotion for Diamond Dogs and we were both in Los Angeles. He was on tour, late nights, seeing and meeting everyone. He walked into the studio with the most vibrant yellow-mustard suit and his hair was multi-coloured – a combination of yellow, orange and red. He saw the scissors on the floor, probably there for wardrobe, and he picked them up and sat down. I remember thinking how tired he looked. Knowing what we know now, he was living very fast in 1974, and you can see that in his eyes. But I’m glad I got these in colour – the suit, the hair, even those socks.

David Bowie and Elizabeth Taylor by Terry O'Neill

David Bowie’s first meeting with actress Elizabeth Taylor:

I was working in Los Angeles and Elizabeth Taylor rang me up. I knew Elizabeth for years, worked with her on several occasions. She asked if I could introduce her to David Bowie. There was a film she was starting to work on and she wanted to consider David for one of the roles.  I arranged a lunch between them, at director George Cukor’s home. Well, the day came and Elizabeth and I were waiting.  1:00, 2:00 and so on – until it was about 5:30 or so. No sign of David Bowie.

Just before 6, he turns up.  Now, no one keeps Elizabeth Taylor waiting.  But Elizabeth was a star and she knew the natural light of Los Angeles was fading – so she rushed him in and immediately swept him up in her arms and started to pose. I captured several rolls of film that day, the first time Elizabeth Taylor met David Bowie.

No, David did not get the role in the film she wanted to speak about. But they did become great friends.

David Bowie Diamond Dogs Contact Sheet

Diamond Dogs, which became the reference point for Guy Peellaert’s album cover:

I was asked to take shots for David Bowie’s album Diamond Dogs.  In one series, David was to lay on the ground in a dog-like pose, and those photos became the references for artist Guy Peellaert’s album cover. For publicity, they wanted photos of David with a dog. So in walks this giant dog! And David, with his high heeled boots and hat. He sort of reclined in the chair and the dog stood next to him.  Well, to everyone’s surprise – the moment the strobe light flashed, the dog would start to bark. And what a bark he had! Everyone in the studio was startled.  I was hidden behind the camera.  David?  He never moved an inch.

David Bowie frequently collaborated with a diverse range of visual artists, designers, photographers and film-makers. If you’re a Bowie fan, why not explore key items from the V&A’s David Bowie collection, and discover what these items and collaborations reveal about Bowie and his legacy.

You can also read more about Terry O’Neill’s 1974 Diamond Dogs portrait here.

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