Terry O'Neill Photography at Art House Nights, Palihouse
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Terry O’Neill Photography at Art House Nights, Palihouse

Looking for a new favorite LA art event? Solution: Filter Foundry presents: ART HOUSE NIGHTS, a weeknight one-time exhibition and art-chat-a-thon in collaboration with LACMA MUSE and Los Angeles Magazine. The event happens monthly at the Palihouse in West Hollywood and showcases original works by museum quality artists. Best of all, the crowd is cool and friendly, well dressed, but not at all your normal gallery scene.

Wednesday’s event featured renowned celebrity photographer Terry O’Neill (works can be seen in the slideshow). The walls were hung in a clustered salon style that felt like a wall of family portraits – except these family photos are of Denzel Washington, Paul Newman, Frank Sinatra, and the ever Iconic Bridget Bardot. The thought of being iconic, or creating an iconic image, is a pretty big idea! So before the term “icon” gets unruly let’s take a moment to do a little art historical photography break down, shall we?

Photography is a relatively young medium. During the early days of post-modernism, when photography was first getting its due credit as a fine art practice, a new idea was introduced into the art historical cannon – it was called the failure of portraiture.

terry o neill photography at art house nights palihouse
Terry O'Neill Photography at Art House Nights, Palihouse

This is an interesting idea, but not always an accurate statement. It claims that portraiture is tainted by the very presence of the camera. The subject being photographed is bound to act for the camera, as a result the image can never be entirely genuine. This put an end to the idea that a portrait could ever capture the essence of someone. It accepted the inherent flaw of the portrait and wondered if we could at least learn something about the subject through their performance.

This isn’t a bad theory. In fact it’s one that I hope every good photographer takes the time to work through because ideas of authenticity will no doubt be recurring themes in any artist’s practice. But the statement that all portraiture inherently fails may be broad-brushing the subject just a tad. Even if we remove examples of hidden cameras, surely there are moments when a subject lets his or her guard down – possibly thinking the photographer isn’t looking, or possibly they know the photographer personally so they forget to be self conscious – and as a result an authentic moment, a lack of acting, might actually be captured.

terry o neill photography at art house nights palihouse
Terry O'Neill Photography at Art House Nights, Palihouse

This dynamic between portrait and performance is even more complicated when you add the idea of photographing celebrities. They are actors! That’s what they do! Am I looking at a character or an actor, or both? And what if the actor is behaving in their public persona, even when not in character? Wow, now we’re sinking our teeth into the real philosophical conundrum of the portrait!

Terry O’Neill spent the majority of his career shooting celebrities, dealing with the overlap between the performer and the person. One image captures this very literally; it’s titled Spielberg, Ford, Lucas and shows the three men (Steven Spielberg, Harrison Ford, and George Lucas) with arms around shoulders and smiling. Ford stands in the center dressed in his Indiana Jones costume, but he’s so obviously being himself. He’s smiling up as the actor Harrison, not as Indiana.

O’Neill also happens to be the only photographer to be invited to shoot on every set of every James Bond movie ever made. Ever! This spans 8 different Bonds from Dr. Noto the most recent Skyfall, and all of them acting as the quintessential man of mystery, simultaneously embodying stealth, sophistication, and sexuality. This is a case of shooting the same character, but portrayed by different actors, each one being as Bond as the other.

Away from the glitz of the set, O’Neill photographed his wife at the time, Faye Dunaway, and got the iconic image of her at the Beverly Hills Hotel pool the morning after she won her Oscar. It’s an incredibly vulnerable image because she’s being photographed by her husband. The image exudes authenticity; from her posture to her facial expression we immediately understand the combination of exhaustion and triumph.

Another too-good-to-miss shot is that of Audrey Hepburn with a dove on her shoulder. Hepburn had been having her photo taken just a few moments prior. When the shoot finished they released a few of the doves. One of them fluttered over and landed on her shoulder! It wasn’t placed there or staged, it was a total happenstance! O’Neill, with his camera in his hand, shot the picture just in time and the dove flew off. It’s the sort of story we hear but we never see it happen. O’Neill saw it happen, and he captured something entirely unexpected.

Which brings us back to our original idea – what exactly constitutes “iconic”? While the word has a slew of dictionary definitions, I think in regards to photography that at the heart of an iconic image is an authentic moment, a moment that might very well be relevant to its time, but which immediately becomes “classic” and never passes through “dated”. That sort of authenticity can’t be produced. To be truly iconic an image can’t be acting; it has to be itself.

For information or sales inquiries on Terry O’Neill’s work visit http://www.terryo.co.uk/

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