Master Photographer: Q&A with Terry O’Neill

The lensman chats with TIME about staying with Hugh Hefner, his cockney accent and his first meeting with Frank Sinatra

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Terry O'Neill / Getty Images

When Terry O’Neill started taking photographs for newspapers in 1960s London, he never dreamed he would become world-famous. Known for his elegant portraits of everyone from Faye Dunaway to The Beatles, O Neill’s work comes from a tradition that in many ways no longer exists: He had direct access to A-list stars, and was able to document them as they worked, free of interference from publicists. With the release of the monograph Terry O’Neill, which looks back at more than 50 years of his work, he chats with TIME about the early days, his cockney accent and meeting Frank Sinatra.

The book looks great, Terry, congratulations. You’ve taken so many pictures over the years, tell me about the selection process for the book.

Oh, thank you! I’m staggered myself [at] how much I’ve done. When I look back I couldn’t believe I had done all these people: I mean, you never think when you’re doing it, you know, you just work every day. I had a lot of fun getting the book together, and it’s been a great experience. I’m very happy.

Photographers always think they know the best shot, but that’s not always the case. So I let an art director friend of mine, and other photographers, pick their favorite shots. Because you know, you lose sight of it all.

You’ve photographed so many famous people, but I particularly love your portraits of Frank Sinatra. What was it like meeting celebrities like him, and how did you find working with them?

I met Frank Sinatra through Ava Gardner—she wrote a letter for me which I gave him as I went on this film he was doing in Florida with Raquel Welch, Lady in Cement. He was singing at night, and making a film there at the same time. I handed him the letter, he smiled at me, said “right, you’re with me,” and then for the next three weeks totally ignored me. I could go absolutely anywhere with him. I realized then—I had only been doing photography for about six or seven years—that that’s the greatest gift a photographer can have: for someone to just forget you’re there.

(PHOTOS: Diamond Dogs: 50 Years of Terry O’Neill’s Stunning Images)

You started working in 1960s London, and were friends with members of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Tell me about those early days.

When I was working in the beginning, we all thought it was going to grind to a halt. We were all young, and we were doing exactly what we liked. We were 21, 22, and were all suddenly given a chance. I used to sit with The Beatles and Stones, and we used to talk about what we wanted to do when all this was over—we were all convinced it was going to last four or five years, and then we’d have to get a proper job.

What strikes me about your portraits is how different they are from what happens today in celebrity photography, which seems to be a very controlled environment.

I’d hate to be doing it today. There’s nobody I really want to photograph. There seems to be a war between photographers and stars. Paparazzi have caused all this trouble, and the publicity people [want] to control everything. I always wanted all the people [I photographed] to have dignity as well. That was a big thing to me: I wanted people to be proud of the pictures that I took of them. Most of them, or all of them I hope, are.

I’ve read that you feel your London accent has, in some ways, helped you in the U.S.

When I first went to the U.S., I went to stay with Hugh Hefner when he had his place in Chicago. And all night there was a knock on my door—people wanted me to talk, people thought I sounded like Michael Caine in Alfie. I don’t know what it is, people just like the English, and it was a big big help.

What’s next for you?

Actually, I’ve just come back from doing Pelé in South America. He’s one person I’ve always wanted to photograph. I shot him in a black suit looking like James Bond. He was such a gentleman.

Terry O’Neill, published by ACC Editions, is available now.