6 minute read

Oh You Pretty Thing

In his new book, photographer Terry O’Neill looks back on his work with David Bowie, and reveals images that have never been seen before.

How does he do it? More than three years after his death on January 10, 2016, David Bowie remains a source of intrigue and excitement.

Only last month, fans were celebrating 50 years since the release of Space Oddity in July 1969 – the song that let the world know he had well and truly arrived. Then a movie, Stardust, about Bowie’s first trip to the US in 1971, is currently filming, with British actor Johnny Flynn in the title role.

This all comes just months after footage was uncovered of the first Ziggy Stardust TV performance from June 1972, thought to have been lost, as well as the discovery of a document from the BBC archives containing notes on a 1965 audition. It read: “Quite a different sound. Not particularly exciting.”

Photographer Terry O’Neill, who has worked with actors and musicians since the 1960s, explains why Bowie’s legacy will be everlasting. “He was one of a kind, always changing and a true genius,” he says. “I was always amazed at his fans. David Bowie has the most loyal following of anyone I’ve ever met.”

O’Neill worked with Bowie regularly from the 1970s onwards. Through his many books and exhibitions, he is one of the figures keeping Bowie in the public eye. Bowie by O’Neill: The Definitive Collection with Unseen Images will be published this month, containing more than 500 images, from Ziggy Stardust performances to recording sessions. O’Neill has even included scans of his contact sheets, as well as images not seen until now.

So what can fans expect to see that they haven’t already? “Well, this is my ultimate David Bowie book,” O’Neill explains. “It’s based on a limited edition that came out in 2016, but smaller and handier, with all of the extra material. The contact sheets I haven’t featured before, and there are images I didn’t even realise I had. I’d shoot a lot of rolls, and some would be sent to the newspapers or whatever, but not everything would be used, and if it wasn’t I’d just file it away before going to my next job. I’m really glad I kept everything, though, because it’s a real joy to go back and look at them all, and see the moments you’d forgotten about.”

For example, “When I first photographed David in 1973 for a Ziggy Stardust performance at the Marquee Club in London, Marianne Faithfull was there, who I’d worked with in the 1960s, but she was a bit out of the limelight by this point. David, who clearly had a great deal of respect for her, was bringing her back to the stage. I took some really nice photos of them together, in costume, backstage, and with David, dressed down and out of costume, cheering her on from the floor. I haven’t shown these until now.”

But that was an unusual concert. “I remember, it was a closed set, because it was being recorded for a TV show in the US. There was a small audience, made up of members of the David Bowie Fan Club, and a lot of them were dressed just as elaborately as he did. When I arrived, I headed backstage to introduce myself, and there he was, very striking and thin. He was still married to Angela at the time, and she was a powerhouse – I could tell she had a lot to do with the overall image and how things were run. But David was very quiet and polite, and told me I could go anywhere. So I did.”

Looking back through the archives brought with it other surprises. “We were taking out the original contact sheets, and on one there were some markings, with one image initialled ‘DB’ – David’s actual handwriting! I must have shared it with him, and he marked the ones he liked, then initialled one. I had it all these years and never noticed before, and the contact sheet, with his markings, is featured in the book. But something else that surprised me, looking back, was the interaction that an artist could have with the audience in those days. In those days, you could get really close to the performer – not like now. I have a wonderful photo of David in the book, leaning down to kiss a fan.”

Many of the images spark anecdotes and fond memories. “My favourite Bowie shot is ‘jumping dog’, which is very well known,” says O’Neill. “After meeting David at the Marquee Club, I was asked to take publicity photos for his new album, which was Diamond Dogs. So I went to the studio, and sure enough there was David, posing next to the biggest dog I’ve ever seen. Every time the camera flashed, this dog would go crazy, jumping up and barking at the light. I think everyone in the studio was a bit nervous, but David sat there completely motionless.

“For the album release, they called me again, and I was asked to take some portraits for the artist Guy Peellaert to use as a reference for the cover artwork. So I have rolls of film of David posing as a dog. I even have photos of the dog!”

As soon as I met him, I was blown away. We got along straight away. He had a real respect for artists – and that included photographers.

Apparently, Bowie had his own favourite shots by O’Neill. “He liked the portraits I took of him and William Burroughs, the famed novelist,” he says.

“David rang me out of the blue and asked me to come to his office in Chelsea with my camera. He was with an older gentleman, very dapper, who I didn’t recognise at first, but I took a series of them together. David liked those photos so much, he took one and hand-coloured it, and wrote on the top ‘2 Wild Boys’ – that’s been featured in exhibitions too.”

With Bowie, the unexpected was never far away. “He wasn’t always on time, though,” O’Neill laughs. “I remember, Elizabeth Taylor rang me one day and asked if I could introduce her to him. Well, if Elizabeth Taylor asks you to do something, you don’t say no! So I made arrangements for lunch, and we were there… waiting, waiting… no sign of David Bowie. Then around 6pm, as the sun was setting, in he walks. Elizabeth asked me to grab my camera, and we did an impromptu photo session.

“He was also an amazing saxophone player. I was at Peter Sellers’ house for his 50 th birthday, and some of the other guests got up to play music – Bill Wyman on bass, Ronnie Wood on guitar, Keith Moon on drums, Joe Cocker singing and David Bowie on saxophone!”

Clearly, O’Neill thought very highly of Bowie – both the man and his work. “As soon as I met him, I was blown away,” he says. “He wasn’t just a musician, he was a stage actor with all of these different characters, from Ziggy Stardust to Aladdin Sane. We got along straight away. He had a real respect for artists, and that included photographers.”

The costumes and characters also made him interesting to photograph. “Absolutely,” O’Neill confirms. “I’ve worked with Elton John as well, so I’ve been pretty lucky [laughs]. For both, I never knew what to expect. One day, David would show up with bright orange hair – and the next a well-tailored suit.”

So how did he feel hearing about Bowie’s death? “I’ve never seen anything like it, the outpouring of grief from fans the world over,” says O’Neill. “It means everything to me to be able to share my work with this man, a true and lasting icon.”

Bowie by O’Neill: The Definitive Collection with Unseen Images by Terry O’Neill is published by Cassell Illustrated. octopusbooks.co.uk

Words: Chris Anderson