Fifty Years at the Top: Terry O’Neill at Chris Beetles Gallery

Terry O’Neill’s portraits of the most famous names on the planet have pretty much defined “Hollywood cool” for half a century. Crisp black and white with no overly scary contrast, they are a pleasing mix of staged to the camera poses and occasional glimpses of the debonair at play. The exhibition at the Chris Beetles Gallery may be titled 50 Years at the Top but its focus is very much on the iconic 60s images that made O’Neill’s name.

There is a particularly tedious argument that gets rolled out on photography comment sites. It is that if you need to have a photo explained – or that its success hinges on you knowing in advance who the subject is – then it is not a successful photo. People who get very excited by things such as sharpness and balanced histograms get passionate about this. I guess if your definition of success is getting the contrast on a tree just right then you’re going to be a bit picky if a blurry snap of Michael Caine gets everybody’s attention. Not that O’Neill is ever blurry of course. But it is a massive advantage to have a vague understanding that Lee Marvin isn’t just some craggy tough guy but Lee Marvin.

And it’s the shots of Lee Marvin that are my cumulative favourite here. But then I’m a sucker for Cat Ballou and Paint Your Wagon. I even watched a tedious episode of Dragnet because a young Lee Marvin was the killer. So having him look all tough-guy with Paul Newman, lounging in a t-shirt and jeans, and also fixing my eye over a drink makes me very happy indeed. But there are so many names to catch the eye – random Beatles, Caine & Hoskins at the Raymond Revue Bar, Twiggy on Regent Street, Pete & Dud wiped out in a swimming pool. And then there’s Audrey Hepburn. In black and white and then amazingly, uniquely, quite deliciously in colour. Vibrant, relaxed and altogether splendid. If I had the means the whole exhibition would be on my wall but if I had only slight means then it would be that one.

The exhibition is online here and there’s a nice little catalogue you could get for a tenner. It’s also well worth the little diversion from Piccadilly Circus. And despite my Lee Marvin love you don’t really need to know the names to appreciate the cool. But please don’t tell me you like them because the focus is right.

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