Terry O'Neil-Photograph-Ed Alexander

Terry O’Neil – Storyteller

When reflecting upon my own work I start to recognise the desire to capture those fleeting moments of normality, where my client is no longer a collaborator in creating the image but a bystander unaware of the intruding lens. 

Born a short distance from where I spent my own formative years (although many years before I hasten to add), Terry O’Neil, died in mid-November 2019. Having read the obituaries, I’ve decided to briefly revisit his work and consider how his images have either knowingly inspired or subconsciously informed my own work. 

Terry O'Neil's image of Faye Dunaway, the morning after the Oscars
Terry O'Neil's image of Faye Dunaway, the morning after winning an Oscar. Found in The Guardian's 'Life in Pictures' article.

O’Neil would be known for many paparazzo celebrity captures, mainly from the 1960’s and 70’s and his ability to capture moments of reflection and wonderful storytelling are what resonate with me.

A great example of his storytelling is the image of actor Faye Dunaway, taken the morning after winning an Oscar for her role in the 1977 film, Network. 

Surrounded by newspapers, Oscar up front, and slouched rather than reclining, Dunaway is seen as contemplative, gazing at the famous statuette. What’s going through her mind at that point? How is she feeling? There’s no sign of elation - maybe it’s emotional exhaustion, maybe recognition that her career has just changed its trajectory. My eye then heads to the background. An hotel swimming pool. Opulence which is to be expected, yet empty (the shoot was early morning). No appreciative or adoring audience. Is Dunaway actually empty inside, is this the suggestion? After all the hard work, putting in a performance that’s been recognised as truly special, Dunaway is alone.

An image of Robert Redford in conversation with Richard Helms, a former CIA director
Terry O'Neil's image of Robert Redford in conversation with Richard Helms, a former CIA director. Found in The Guardian's 'Life in Pictures' article.

Sometimes stories are obvious, sometimes implied. I feel that in this image the viewer can make choices; contemplative, aloof, isolated - any of these words can build the viewers personal narrative.

Another aspect of storytelling as well as capturing a very human moment is this image taken from the set of Three Days of the Condor in 1974. Actor Robert Redford is relaxing on a cold day deep in conversation with someone who happens to be a former Director of the CIA. Now look at the background. A misty, out of focus cityscape. What better way to capture the CIA - shadowy operatives yet at the same time in clear focus.  I love this juxtaposition.

Terry O'Neil's image of Winston Churchill after being discharged from hospital
Terry O'Neil's image of Winston Churchill. From The Guardian's 'Life in Pictures' article.

I find the image of Winston Churchill being discharged from hospital interesting as for me it positions this immense figure in British history both as in decline and as royalty. Is this a frail old man, or Pharaoh?

One of the great things about Terry O’Neil’s work was his ability to offer the viewer more than just the paparazzo moment in time. He allowed the viewer to develop their own story using or ignoring the visual cues he included. He leaves a fascinating body of work that, in Michael Caine’s words, referring to the 60’s, “captured the resurgence and energy of this revolution.”

When reflecting upon my own work I start to recognise the desire to capture those fleeting moments of normality, where my client is no longer a collaborator in creating the image but a bystander unaware of the intruding lens. Those moments can sometimes offer the best storytelling opportunities and that’s how I’d like to think, O’Neil’s photographs have inspired me.

I’ll be returning to other inspirations and influencers in other posts.

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