Terry O’Neill & David Bowie: inside the definitive photo collection

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In our time, in which digital medias triumph, it’s unusual to have the chance to declare the official end of a collection, especially regarding the printed publication of the photos made by one of the best professionals during the ‘60s-‘70s and the artist that maybe had exposed himself the most during those years. Nevertheless, this is what actually happened recently, with the book released in August 2019: Bowie by O’Neill – The Definitive Collection.

Since the English artist has passed away in January 2016, Terry O’Neill has published two photographic books entirely dedicated to him: Bowie By O’Neill (2016) and When Ziggy Played The Marquee (2017). The first was addressed to a really selected target of fans, with a extra fine graphic project ideated by the English studio Red Engine and a luxury paper production completely made in Italy (Erre Stampa and Legatoria Bergamasca), which included a very particular white resin bas-relief cover produced using thermoforming. The first autographed edition included two limited lithographies and was sold at £1,500. The second book, on the contrary, had a very approachable price and witnessed a very important period into Bowie’s career: the the last live whispers of Ziggy Stardust on the stage of the Marquee during the 1980 Floor Show, though the alien had officially died in a provocative way three months before, in front of the audience of the Hammersmith Odeon.

Strangely, Ziggy’s post-mortem performance is exactly the one which marks the beginning of the fruitful collaboration between Bowie and O’Neill. This one, 10 years before, had started to shoot some emerging bands such as The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, and briefly later he masterly documented the Swinging Sixties and then the exaggerated Seventies. His superb photos – often made in a very elegant black and white – immortalized an incredible number of musicians, actors and models. His exhibition entitled Icons has travelled around the world with dozens of excellent images of Elton John, Rod Stewart, Paul Newman, Sean Connery, Audrey Hepburn, Bruce Springsteen, Frank Sinatra, Bono Vox, Amy Winehouse… and a very particular section dedicated to David Bowie, but only a taste of the eleven sessions in this book.

Bowie had certainly been the rocker who utilized the image of himself in the most original, excessive and artistic way. If we want to cover all his sudden music initiatives, all the characters that populated his albums and tours during the ‘70s, we would mention at least half of a dozen of different photographers. But O’Neill was able to define some fundamental milestones of the bigger and more complex mosaic. Some photos are absolutely essential piece of information dedicated to the most eclectic musician that the history of rock has ever known. This last publication reuses the same graphic of the first book above mentioned, but cuts the costs to some dozens of pounds. It’s a must to own in every Bowie collection (also available as e-book). More than 500 photographs: from the late Ziggy Stardust, passing through the amazing shots for the Diamond Dogs, the American-soul era and the Thin White Duke. Among them, O’Neill also documents the prestigious encounters of David with Elizabeth Taylor and William Burroughs, and his cinematographic experience for The Man Who Fell To Earth.

It’s a exhaustive collection from the photographer’s archive, with also some completely unreleased contact sheets (a few negatives have been sadly lost) and an interesting and passionate preface by O’Neill himself, in which he reveals that he faced the real David Robert Jones – and not one of his
alter-egos – just once: it was 1992, during their last collaboration, at that time the ‘70s were only a remembrance and David’s career seemed to be quite near to an artistic abyss. But just one year later he began to surprise his fans again with new characters, innovative musical experiments and lots of style. Until the apotheosis of Blackstar.

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