Terry O’Neill ‘Celebrity’ at the Walker

Review of Terry O’Neill ‘Celebrity’ at the Walker by Jo Raven

The work of celebrity photographer Terry O’Neill is currently on display at the Walker Art Gallery. The exhibition consists of a selection of 43 images illustrating the breadth of O’Neill’s work to date, taking a retrospective look at his career over the past forty years.

Emerging as a key photographer during the 1950’s, he happened upon his career by chance, working in the technical photographic unit for an airline, and eventually pursuing his passion for photojournalism by working as a freelance photographer at London Airport. His lucky break came in the form of the sleeping figure of R.A.B Butler, the then Home Secretary in Harold Macmillan’s government, which led to his job as the reportage photographer at Heathrow for the Sunday Dispatch.

Evolving during the 1960’s with other prominent photographers such as David Bailey, Terence Donovan and Brian Duffy, O’Neill and his peers were crucial in promoting London as a centre of culture and fashion. This can be illustrated by O’Neill’s unassuming images of the Beatles, Rolling Stones and Twiggy taken prior to their rise to fame and celebrity. These directly contrast with the glossy, glamorous and highly polished representations of the Hollywood elite photographed at the peak of their careers, exemplified by portraits of Michelle Pfeiffer, Michael Douglas and the dual image of Joan Collins and Elizabeth Taylor.

David Bowie c.Terry O'NeillO’Neill’s portfolio is not limited simply to posed portraits, he also captures on screen persona’s illustrated in the gangster characters of Michael Cane and Bob Hoskins, takes a relaxed personal approach in Ringo Star’s wedding picture, and can effectively evoke a comical mood as shown in the joint portraits of Dudly Moore and Peter Cook and surprisingly in the official photograph of the Queen and Prince Philip (a must see!). In light of subsequent changes in the lives of those depicted, many of the photographs remain testament to the changing nature of celebrity status and the real personality behind a public image. This can especially be seen in the joint portrait of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen and the archetypal image of Janis Joplin.
All the photographs are personalised with individual captions, little snippets of information given by O’Neill recalling personal memories and stories of those portrayed. These add a further dimension to the exhibition as a whole, giving the viewer an alternative perspective and additional meaning behind the superficial façade.

Definitely worth a visit.