The latest show to hit SF Art Exchange, “Chairman of the Board. Knight of the Realm,” chronicles the careers of Frank Sinatra and Sir Elton John by famed British photographer Terry O'Neill. Lining opposite walls of the gallery space, this rare solo exhibition pits 20+ photographs of an effortlessly polished Sinatra against 20+ of a quirkily dynamic John. Masterfully arranged in a mix of both black-and-white and color, the show tells not only of the men being shot but also sheds light on the man behind the camera. We caught up with the talented Terry O’Neill at last week’s preview event at the Clift to talk photography, music and celebrity.
When did you become interested in photography?
I was a jazz drummer and I wanted to get to America because rock ‘n’ roll was starting then in England. I didn’t want to play that every night, so I applied for a job at British Airways because I heard good things about being taken on as a steward. I got a job in the photographic unit and then accidentally got a shot of someone famous in the airport—a foreign minister in a pin-striped suit who had fallen asleep amongst a load of African chieftans. It made a striking picture, a reporter saw it, showed it to his editor and suddenly I had a job covering for the newspaper. That was the start of it.
What marked your big transition into celebrity photography?
I was only in the airport job two months when that first photo took off. This great English photographer at the time found me and asked me to cover for him. He got phone calls from film stars all the time and he wanted me to take some of the jobs. Then he died and the paper he worked with offered me a job. So suddenly in six months, I had gone from not knowing a thing about photography to having a staff job on an international newspaper.
How did you get to shoot the Beatles and the Rolling Stones?
My editor was always trying to get pictures of pop groups into newspapers and he thought I was the ideal bloke to do it, so he sent me to photograph a group called the Beatles, just before they had their first record hit. They published the picture and it sold out the paper. So then they started asking me to predict who’d be next. Since I knew a lot about music, I knew I could do this … so I said the Rolling Stones. Before you knew it, I was the new king of rock ‘n’ roll photographers. These were my first jobs … and I was flying.
You’ve also photographed the British Royal Family and prominent politicians. Who’s more fun to shoot—celebrity or royalty?
Well, it's not fun doing the royal family, but portraits, for me, are easy. The queen, for instance. I caught her smiling at a time when things were really solemn. She was fantastic to photograph because she's used to it, she usually poses for paintings. She made it so easy … it went like a dream.
Who has been your favorite to shoot?
Sinatra. I've worked with him over a course of 30 years. When he walked into a room, you just knew he was there. Plus, if you worked for him, you knew you were good because there was nobody who wasn't good around him.
For this exhibit, you've juxtaposed two great but very different musical talents. Whose sound do you prefer?
Sinatra. I love Elton for rock 'n' roll, but for singers, there's really just no one who's ever going to be near Sinatra.
Will this Frank Sinatra/Elton John show travel elsewhere?
Well, I've got to see how it goes here. This is the testing ground. It's up to you, San Francisco.
“Photographs of Frank Sinatra and Sir Elton John” at SF Art Exchange, 458 Geary St., 7/11 – 8/31.