Terry O’Neill was within touching distance, resplendent in crisp white shirt, a black sweater draped across his shoulder, his silver hair bobbing up and down and sideways as he took plaudits from admirers and autographed Bowie by O’Neill, a 500-copy limited edition tome at Mark Ransom’s Art Gallery on the Pimlico Road. It showcased a collection of some of his best photographs during a 30-year collaboration with singer David Bowie.
It contained exclusive behind-the-scenes shoots of the last performance of Bowie as Ziggy Stardust in 1973, alongside other memorable and now iconic photos of the singer’s career. From the photo session for the album Diamond Dogs, to the set photography of the film, The man who fell to earth. It also included Bowie’s first encounter with actress Elizabeth Taylor. There were also rarely seen photos from the studio recording session for Young Americans, stage performances from Station to Station, and the William Burroughs sessions.
The two ceremonial torches at the entrance glowed with crimson-red fire as guests queued at the entrance, waiting for their chance to mingle with one of the world’s most celebrated photographers. My night had been extinguished prematurely, what had looked like a promising encounter would now not materialise. The gallery’s media fixer had dangled a date with Mr O’Neill. “When would be convenient for you to interview Terry? He has 2 interviews scheduled for 5 and 5.30 on Wednesday previous to the show. Would you like to come in at 4.30 to meet Terry?
I had other assignments but requested to interview him during the evening. “Could I speak to him in the course of the evening?” The PR replied: “Will find time for you tomorrow evening no problem, when you arrive just please text me on my mobile. Terry is likely to leave around 8pm as he will be quite tired, would be great if you could pop in before then.”
I had crammed three pages of my pocket notebook with questions about images that had lodged in my psyche for decades; I was especially interested in some of the backstories and anecdotes behind iconic shoots like: Diamond Dogs (Remember where a fierce-looking dog lunges forward into the air baring its teeth as David Bowie holds, wearing gigantic platform shoes, holds the leash tightly; Ziggy’s final concert at the Marquee Club where Bowie retired his alter ego which is often mixed up with his last performance as Ziggy at the Hammersmith Odeon.
What about the singer’s encounter with Elizabeth Taylor? American actress Faye Dunaway’s poolside portrait the morning after her Oscar triumph and Frank Sinatra strolling onset with his minders in 1968 on the boardwalk of Miami’s Fontainebleau Hotel. Access. How did he get it? My plans had gone up in smoke as O’Neill left early due to fatigue. A frail man, now in his late 70s, the evening had taken its toll. But Mr O’Neill remains effervescent in his larger-than-life subjects.
Cover Photograph: Brian McMahon/Getty Images