Books & Arts
Candid camera A.A. Gill talks to his friend Terry O’Neill,
whose iconic photographs captured an entirely new kind of celebrity
Iremember the first time Terry O’Neill took my photograph: he wore blue; I wore grey and the Great War helmet of the third regiment of Pomeranian Grenadiers. We were at the Imperial War Museum, and the nice curator gave me the tin hat with reverence. ‘ T hey’re surprisingly hard to get hold of in good condition, considering how many were made,’ he said. T his one had been lifted from a corpse in Arras. And I can pass on to Spectator readers — because I know how much you love this sort of thing — that the second world war version is slightly smaller than the first, to save steel. I donned the coal scuttle and a T eutonic demeanour. ‘Look fiercer,’ said T erry in his snapper’s accent — f-stop cockney. ‘Come on, really aggressive. You look swish, for God’s sake.’
When the photograph appeared on the cover of the Sunday Times Magazine, all I could see was a long exuberant nostril hair.‘Why didn’t you tell me I had nose hair, T erry?’ ‘Yeah, no. I like that. It’s my favourite bit. It’s like your Hitler moustache had gone into hiding.’
erry finished wearing his own helmet with National S ervice, and he picked up a camera his mum had given him, went to Heathrow and started taking pictures of random celebrities. Quite what moved him to do so is unclear, or rather he smudges over it. T erry smudges quite a lot of his life. O n light-sensitive paper his focus is pinsharp, in sensitive life it can get blurry.
But anyway, it was an inspired move: one of those right-time, right-terminal, right-bloke things. It was the moment when Fellini was about to invent Paparazzo, and the jet set was starting to do up its seatbelts and order Martinis, and a new set of celebrities were tentatively walking down B O AC’s steps and waving. Not the glossy, touched-up, backlit stars of old Hollywood, or double-breasted politicians, but a more louche, accessible, revelatory, insecure, flirtatious and transient celebrity. And T erry was there to meet them. He may even have invented them.
Celebrity comes with a particular sort of image; it’s a 35mm reflex camera image.
It’s a look that is informal and intimate. T his camera made fame and celebrity commonplace. And T erry was there for them, though he always asked permission first. ‘It was different then,’ he told me recently. ‘We didn’t leap all over people and jump on their motors. I never stuck my camera up a girl’s frock. Mind you, then celebrities wouldn’t have forgotten their knickers in the hope that you might.’
It has been said that he was the model for ‘Alfie’. He was certainly a mate of Michael Caine. ‘I don’t know if I was or not, Adrian; just say I was. I tell you what, though, I had to go and take a picture of Hugh Hefner and I stayed in the Playboy Mansion, and all the girls — the bunnies and the playmates— kept knocking on my door and saying, “ T alk to us. You sound just like that Michael Caine.” ’ ‘You must have had fun in the Playboy Mansion.’ ‘I tell you, it was fabulous. I got from January to July before Friday.’
ight from the start T erry took pictures that were more than pretty or cunning records of the famous. Among them are dozens of the most memorable images of fame and the famous. T hey are more than the sum of their subjects. He took a lot of Frank S inatra. S inatra is T erry’s kind of celebrity. If Alfie was based on T erry, then quite a lot of T erry is based on S inatra. ‘I met Ava Gardner. I wanted to photograph Frank but he was very difficult to get to. S he gave me this sealed letter and said, “You give this to Frank.” I had no idea what was in it. It could have said,“Have this man killed.” But he read it and said, “ OK ,” and I followed him round for a week. He never said anything else to me.And this was the very first picture I took. He walked round the corner and “click”.’ It’s the photograph of S inatra in Miami on the set of Tony Rome. He’s walking along the boardwalk with a posse of very Soprano-looking guys. O ne of them is his double — the guy who stands in the shot for the cameraman to do the lighting. It was immediately a hugely popular picture. It’s heavy with a sense of power. ‘I tell you who buys it,’ says T erry. ‘Businessmen, masters of the universe, Gordon Gekko types. T hey love it. T hey hang it up behind the spectator | 18 September 2010 | www.spectator.co.uk