Photographer Tom O'Neal reaches deep in the vault for his latest rock photo show.
Photographer Tom O'Neal is in an odd place.
Not the place from which he spoke to the Weekly — Los Angeles's Silverlake community, where last week he was visiting his rising music video director son Dugan O'Neal (Gym Class Heroes) for Thanksgiving and taking stock of (and pride in) his "artistic family."
So not an odd physical place, but an odd career and legacy place.
He's lived in Carmel Valley for 25 years now, and has built up a formidable second career as a wedding photographer — by his estimate he's shot close to 1,500 weddings. But it's his first career, that of an elite, early rock 'n' roll photographer (80 album covers and countless photo assignments), and his humble outlook on such, that seems incongruous with his storied journey, some of which is replicated in a photography retrospective that reaches back to his '60s heyday at Mountainsong Galleries this Saturday.
Most of the photographs in that show, Scene from Inside, were overlooked in O'Neal's deep cache of work and have never been seen or published.
"I've gone back to these old boxes," he says. "I'm finding images of people I forgotten I'd shot. Ray Charles and the Jefferson Airplane."
It started with the seminal 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival.
"It really did launch my career as a rock 'n' roll photographer," he says.
He's got the pictures and stories to back it up. Like when he was stage right as Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar like a madman shaman. Or when Pete Townsend, in The Who's big American debut, obliterated his Stratocaster.
"When he started to smash his guitar, I became a spectator," O'Neal says of the spectacle. "Oh, my God. I had never seen that. A chunk of it flew off and hit me right in the head. I picked up this piece of wood and put it in my pocket. I didn't take one shot." He gave that piece of rock history to another photographer, who today doesn't even remember what he did with it.
Legendary opportunities ensued. O'Neal's had close-up encounters and photo shoots with Hendrix, The Doors, The Rolling Stones, Janice Joplin, Hot Tuna, CSNY, Joni Mitchell, The Mamas and the Papas, B.B. King, the Three Tenors, you name it.
One of his most cherished shoots came with a Joni Mitchell meeting. He was young, and he describes the folk singer as a "powerful" presence, awing him into a freewheeling and open-ended photo shoot in which the two simply hung out and "wandered."
He was the only photographer present at a Smothers Brothers taping of Jim Morrison backed by the show's house band, the Nelson Riddle Orchestra, which normally accompanied acts like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett.
"The other guys [in the house band] would sit in the audience seats and Jim would be about five rows back," O'Neal says. "He always had a black writing or drawing book with him. He was just very nice to talk to — very cordial, very nice. The guy I saw was totally contrary to the one you see in the movie with Val Kilmer as a raging alcoholic. I saw a very gentle, quiet, reserved guy. I honored that moment in simple conversation."
And that's a key component to O'Neal's philosophical take on photographing people: a fundamental respect for them and their space. It's one that he practices still, on through to his private photo shoot with a nervous George W. Bush.
"I looked him right in the eye and told him how it was going to go," O'Neal recounts, which prompted the former Commander in Chief to ask, "'It's painless?'"
"'As painless as possible,'" O'Neal says he told him. "We had fun. Owning the moment is the most important thing you can do."
People crave and cherish the stories O'Neal carries behind his famous photographs. So he can never seemingly "retire" from the legend and lore of his earlier role as chronicler of early rock 'n' roll. Instead he revisits it and marvels at it, incorporates that remarkable stuff into his current life and work.
"Five guys in a rock band in leather are not that different from five guys in tuxedos," he says. "The groom is the singer, the groomsmen his band. Grace Slick is in a white dress, her band are the bridesmaids. The ceremony is just as much as a production as a rock 'n' roll concert. There's mics getting feedback, the audience, you got people that sing, you have a stage — an altar. The jam session is when everyone starts to dance. 'Born to be Wild' is always played and I did that photograph. I think of Steppenwolf, onstage, 17,000 fans going crazy at the Royal Albert Hall in London."
It seems that rock 'n' roll, at least in O'Neal's life, will never die.
SCENE FROM INSIDE opens Saturday with a VIP reception 4-6pm ($1,500), an elite reception 6-7pm ($150), and a public reception 7pm (free), at Mountainsong Galleries, Ocean Avenue between Mission and San Carlos, in Carmel. 626-0600.
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