O’Neill died at his home in London following a battle with cancer. His agency, Iconic Images, confirmed his death with a statement shared on O’Neill’s Instagram: “It is with a heavy heart that Iconic Images announces the passing of Terry O’Neill, CBE,” the note read. “Terry was a class act, quick witted and filled with charm. Anyone who was lucky enough to know or work with him can attest to his generosity and modesty. As one of the most iconic photographers of the last 60 years, his legendary pictures will forever remain imprinted in our memories as well as in our hearts and minds.”
Born in West London in 1938, O’Neill was an aspiring jazz drummer when he found his way to photography. One of his earliest jobs was as a staff photographer for the tabloid, the Daily Sketch, and because of his age and his background as a musician, he was tasked with taking some very early portraits of the Beatles.
“I was asked to go down to Abbey Road Studios and take a few portraits of this new band,” he said, per a bio via Iconic Images. “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.”
Not long after, O’Neill was enlisted to photograph the Rolling Stones and soon became one of the top chroniclers of celebrity culture during the “swinging Sixties” and beyond. He shot celebrities like Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra and Michael Caine, while he also took photos for various James Bond films starring Sean Connery and Roger Moore.
In 1977, he took one of his most famous portraits: His then-girlfriend Faye Dunaway slumped in a chair poolside, surrounded by newspapers, staring at the Oscar she’d won the night before for Network.
O’Neill would would also take photos of various athletes and politicians, even Queen Elizabeth II, although music remained central to his career. He was one of David Bowie’s go-to photographers (O’Neill took the iconic “jumping dog” photo), calling the musician “my creative muse” in an interview with The Guardian in August.
“I treated David like a Shakespearean actor as you never knew who was going to show up,” O’Neill said. “He could look alien-like or female-like; it was always so exciting as everything he did was so unpredictable.”
One of O’Neill’s other favorite subjects was Elton John, whom he spent several decades photographing. He shot John during his legendary two-night Dodger Stadium series in October 1975, and, most recently, shot the portrait that appears on the cover of John’s new memoir, Me.
On Twitter, John paid tribute to O’Neill, writing, “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.”
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.
— Elton John (@eltonofficial) November 17, 2019