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Photographer Terry O’Neill Captured the Rolling Stones Before the World Did

Michael Valinsky
Mar 30, 2015 5:00PM

As a teenager, Terry O’Neill had dreams of flying out to New York and drumming jazz music in the big city. Instead, he took a job photographing people in London’s Heathrow Airport for advertisements. After capturing a sleeping Rab Butler, the British politician who was Deputy Prime Minister at the time, O’Neill recalls: “A reporter tapped me on the shoulder and asked to buy my film and the next thing his editor is asking me for more.” This was the beginning of what was to become an extraordinary and historically important career.

In 1963, young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones approached O’Neill for a photo shoot. At the time, the Stones were not very well known; they had just recorded their first single “Come On” and made their first public appearance the year before. Recognizing the potential in their cool and refreshing demeanor, O’Neill took to the streets and started photographing the band with 35mm film. The resulting images were spontaneous, organic, and exciting.

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This first encounter with the Rolling Stones launched O’Neill into the London rock ‘n’ roll scene of the ’60s. He followed some of the leading bands on tour and was allowed backstage to take photos at a time when photographers normally couldn’t do so. While he similarly befriended celebrities in London, and soon after, Hollywood, O'Neill gained access to the film industry and had the opportunity to expand his portfolio to include international icons. He befriended musicians in particular, and made a practice of capturing their lives behind the scenes. O’Neill worked with Frank Sinatra for over two decades, producing one of the most extensive photo diaries of his career.

O’Neill’s rarest photographs of the Rolling Stones resurfaced recently with the release of TASCHEN’s SUMO-sized book, It’s Just a Shot Away. The tome features over 500 pages of images, essays, and reports on the band’s incredible journey, and includes photographs by David Bailey and Peter Beard, among many others.

Michael Valinsky
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