Over a career spanning more than five decades, Terry O’Neill photographed some of the world’s most recognized performers, from Elton John to Frank Sinatra to The Beatles. But for O’Neill, there was no experience quite like photographing David Bowie.
“His unique command of his own infinitely flexible image constituted an essential component of his art,” O’Neill said. “I think he was seeing himself as the photographer as well as the model.”
O’Neill, whose limited edition fine-art book, “Bowie by O’Neill,” features a rarely seen look at the artist, first photographed Bowie in 1973, when the star’s manager invited him to a performance at the Marquee Club in Soho, London. In front of a small audience of record company employees, band members’ families and associates, Bowie filmed a special concert that would later be broadcast on the American TV program, The 1980 Floor Show. Unbeknownst to O’Neill at the time, it was Bowie’s final performance as his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust, making O’Neill’s 432 shots from the event a one-of-a-kind record of this pivotal moment in music history.
Less than a year passed before O’Neill and Bowie met again, but the performer had already developed an entirely new vision for his music and his persona. This time, the pair met in a photo studio to create images that the artist Guy Peellaert would use as reference to paint Bowie as half-man and half-canine for the cover of an upcoming LP, “Diamond Dogs.” O’Neill was also assigned to make a promotional image for the album, for which he photographed Bowie alongside a massive Great Dane. At one point, O’Neill recalled, when the dog suddenly reared back and began barking, Bowie remained entirely still – the juxtaposition resulting in the now-iconic image.
“The whole studio leapt back but Bowie just sat there,” O’Neill laughed. “He was cool as a cucumber.”
That moment was perfectly representative of Bowie’s approach to being photographed, O’Neill said. No matter the occasion, the performer was always game, laser-focused and willing to improvise. More than any pop star he worked with, Bowie loved being in front of the camera.
“If he came in to do the pictures, he did the pictures,” he said. “You didn’t have to force him.”
The next time O’Neill photographed Bowie was in a Los Angeles photo studio for a magazine. Bowie arrived having styled himself in a mustard colored suit that complimented his fiery dyed hair. During the session, Bowie picked up a pair of scissors from the floor and posed with them, an impulsive decision that, O’Neill said, created an unexpected and brilliant image.
“He dominated these shoots. He did all sorts of poses and I photographed them,” O’Neill said. “I never made any suggestions to do anything. He just did things.”
In his book, O’Neill presents photos of Bowie in almost every iteration of his wide-ranging artistic career. There are photos of Bowie during the recording of his album, “Young Americans,” at Sigma Sound Studios in Philadelphia. There are photos of Bowie on the set of the film, “The Man Who Fell to Earth.” There are photos on Bowie on tour, and interacting with some of the biggest stars of the day, including William Burroughs and Elizabeth Taylor.
“Every time I photographed Bowie it felt like I was encountering a newly crafted character,” he said. “I photographed him as an actor. That’s how I saw him. I never photographed him as a pop person.”
The last time O’Neill photographed Bowie was the exception. It was 1992, nearly 30 years after their first interaction, and they met to photograph a magazine cover.
“Finally, there seemed to be no artifice, no mask between the real David Bowie and the simply dressed man in the lens,” O’Neill said. “It was just him. He wasn’t hiding behind any character.”
Explore more images from the moments that defined 2016 at Getty Images’ 2016 in Focus digital experience.