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The celebrity photographer who captured the Swinging Sixties in all their glory chats with us about Iconic Images, his brand-new exhibition space at SLS Las Vegas.
Terry O'Neill at the Iconic Images Gallery After-Party Inside Foxtail
You might not have known it at the time, but you’ve probably seen at least one of Terry O’Neill’s photographs. Brigitte Bardot, eyes downcast, with a cigarette dangling out of the side of her mouth; Sean Connery in a Vegas bathtub, telephone receiver in one hand and a magazine in the other; the photographer’s then-girlfriend, Faye Dunaway, lounging beside the pool at the Beverly Hills Hotel the day after her Academy Award win—all were captured by O’Neill, an Englishman who repeatedly assures us he just happened to be in the right place (London) at the right time (the 1960s).
In Vegas this past week to celebrate the official launch of SLS Las Vegas’ new Iconic Images gallery, which primarily features his work, O’Neill opens up about the exhibition space, his fondest memories of a 50-plus-year career, and the state of contemporary celebrity photography.
One of O'Neill's many portraits of Brigitte Bardot
Tell us a bit about the new gallery at SLS Las Vegas. How did that partnership come about?
TERRY O’NEILL: Well, you’ll see the best gallery Las Vegas has ever had. We’re going to put it on the art map. Sam [Nazarian], who’s the owner, fell in love with my work and bought a lot of the pictures. One thing led to another, and he opened this hotel and gave us a gallery here. I’ve always wondered why Las Vegas has never had a really great photographic gallery; it’s a town that’s always trying to be one jump ahead of everything else in the world, but not in the art world. We’re hoping this one will arrive to put it on the map, and everything is looking good at the moment for its future.
To commemorate the gallery’s grand opening, you unveiled some never-before-seen pieces. Tell us about those.
TO: There are two shots of Sinatra there that have never been seen. One is a shot where he’s at the Royal Albert Hall in London, and Ava Gardner’s in the picture, and his wife, Barbara, is in the picture, which he asked me to take (unbeknownst to Barbara, I think) because he wanted to have a picture of the two of them in the audience, watching him. It was such a good picture to take because the Albert Hall is a massive place, and I had to get up high on an organ. But I got the picture and he was happy, so everyone’s happy. The second picture is the same image, but from the back. The thing about Sinatra was that any town he was in, he made his town. He was a great man to work with, and if you worked for him, you had to be one of the best—if you weren’t, you were out. It would boost your ego to know that you worked for him.
Never before seen image of Frank Sinatra being unveiled at the Iconic Images Gallery
You’ve enjoyed a career of more than 50 years. What have been some of the highlights?
TO: Well, the very first job I ever had was for a newspaper, and I didn’t really know what I was doing. My boss said, “While we’ve got you here, we think pop music is going to be big.” I was 20 at the time. He said, “We want you to go down to Abbey Road. There’s a band there recording called the Beatles.” No one had ever photographed a pop group before; they didn’t exist. That published and the paper sold out, and they knew they were onto a good thing. So they said, “Who do you like?” And I told them I like the Rolling Stones because I’m a huge fan, and so I photographed them. They were horrified by those. But I sort of [became] an unofficial recorder of the ’60s—all of the pop stars and fashion designers and models. I became friends with Jean Shrimpton. Her parents were farmers, so I shot her down on the farm. I took all of these pictures, and now they’re invaluable.
You shot a great series of Sean Connery in Vegas in the 1970s. Did you shoot here frequently?
TO: I shot a lot of photos of Dean Martin and Sammy Davis, Jr., and those types of people, but I also used to work a lot on films. I was employed to take pictures of the stars at work, and I went all over the world. That was a great gig as well. Sean was great—he loved Vegas. He was a character.
Sinatra on the boardwalk
What are you thoughts on the current state of celebrity photography?
TO: It all seems to have changed today with the paparazzi. It’s all become a joke now, I think. The PR people want to control everything. I mean, I used to go down and work with Paul Newman for two weeks, but now you get a half hour with a star, maybe in a hotel if you’re lucky, or maybe in a studio. I used to go into their lives and reflect their work. You really got to know the person through the pictures, and now you take pictures and they want to control the pictures. … They’re even trying to get control of all of the magazine interviews. They want approval on everything, and that’s not the way to do it. I don’t have the time or patience anymore; I’ve sort of given up doing it all now. It’s not my world, and it’s not a world that I want. I don’t want to back it up, you know? Writers and photographers deserve the same respect that people have for the stars, and it should be a mutual team working together.
Do you keep up with the younger generation of photographers?
TO: I run a big photography competition—the Terry O’Neill Photography Award—that covers the whole world. We give a prize for young talent, and I always keep up with their work. It’s so hard for a young photographer to become famous today. I mean I was lucky, really; I just came along at the right time, and everything I touched turned to gold. I’m the luckiest guy in the world, so I can’t really take any credit for that.
A shot of Raquel Welch
What words of wisdom do you have for up-and-coming photographers?
TO: Keep taking pictures, and take pictures of things that you like. Doing things that you don’t like to do won’t help you, so whatever you do, make sure you really love your subjects. I’ve always loved everyone I’ve ever photographed. I’m just really interested in them, and I try and show that in my work.
Located on the mezzanine level of SLS Las Vegas, the Iconic Images gallery is open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.
PHOTOGRAPHY VIA ERIK KABIK (PORTRAIT OF TERRY O’NEILL AND NEVER-BEFORE-SEEN PHOTOGRAPH); TERRY O’NEILL (PORTRAITS OF BRIGITTE BARDOT, FRANK SINATRA, RAQUEL WELCH)