Few people captured the changing personas of David Bowie like Terry O’Neill. The legendary British photographer first met Bowie in the early ’70s, when the musician was deep into his Ziggy Stardust period, and for years afterward, O’Neill would witness Bowie’s many evolutions, from Diamond Dogs to the Thin White Duke and, finally, the facade stripped away, the artist in full possession of both his talent and his image. O’Neill shares his memories of those experiences.
“In 1973, I got a call from his manager, Tony DeFries, who said he had an artist I would find interesting, and he asked if I wanted to go down to his club in Soho to check him out. I walked in, and there was David, all done up as Ziggy Stardust. He was singing as a girl danced around him, and that girl turned out to be Marianne Faithfull.
“He was very charming and very polite, right from the start. He was also very shy, but always aware of his image. I looked at him as more an actor than a singer; once he finished performing, he dropped the image and went back to being himself. He was a very intelligent boy.”
“The next time I got a call from Tony, it was to shoot David for the  Diamond Dogs cover. Bowie showed up at the studio with this enormous dog, and he copied all the poses the dog did. All the art was given to [Belgian artist] Guy Peellaert, who drew him from the photographs, and it became that very famous, very controversial cover.”
“David took the tour to America, and while I was in L.A., Liz Taylor said to me, ‘I really like David Bowie, and I’d love to meet him.’ She was interested in putting him in a film she was going to do in Russia, so she said I should tell him to come around to [director] George Cukor’s house on Sunday at 2 o’clock.
“We were at George’s house, waiting for David; 2 o’clock came and went, then 3, 4, 5 o’clock, and still no David. And you know, no one is ever late for Liz Taylor. Finally, at 6 o’clock, he showed up. By then we hardly had any light left, so Liz just took control of the whole session, grabbed him, and we got the photos. He never got the part in that film, but they did become very good friends. She was really charmed by him.”
“He was probably late to meeting Liz because he had overslept. He would be up all night and then sleep during the day. We did a session when he wore this mustard-colored suit, and he looks so tired in the photos. Of course, I don’t think he was behaving himself all the time then, either.”
Los Angeles was the hotbed of the music scene in 1975, says O’Neill, with impromptu groups being formed all the time. Bowie gathered a bunch of friends for one special performance and nicknamed the group Trading Faces. “Peter Sellers was having a birthday party in L.A., and all these guys showed up and started jamming away because Peter loved rock ‘n’ roll,” says O’Neill. “David played the sax, and Keith Moon and Joe Cocker sang. Ronnie Wood was on guitar and Billy Wyman [on bass]. They don’t have parties like that in Hollywood anymore. I wish they did.”
“I got a call to do some photos of him while he was filming [1976’s] The Man Who Fell to Earth, and more than any of his other characters, that was him exactly. He always struck me as an alien who had come to Earth because he was so unlike the rest of us. But by now, he had grown up a bit more and was into a much cooler look, his Thin White Duke period.
“If you wanted to get inside his head and understand him a bit more, you had to look at his lyrics. I didn’t like his music at first, and then one day, I started to read his lyrics; he would leave them around, these handwritten sheets of music. His lyrics were always genius and really the way to know what he was thinking. And he’s done the same with his last album, hasn’t he? The song “Lazarus,” that’s his epitaph, which is very brave.”
“His fans loved him so much, right from the very beginning. You didn’t realize until you went to one of his concerts just how popular he was with people. They weren’t necessarily screaming fans; they were just mesmerized by him. I think that’s because all of his performances were so visual. It was as though he was creating his own film set.
“In the ’90s, he rang me up and asked me to shoot him for a cover. Tony was long gone by then, of course; they had a terrible falling out, and so David would call me directly. I think this was for Premiere magazine, and David said he also wanted the photos for this new stuff he was doing on the Internet. You could never really refuse him anything. By this time, though, you could see he was really at ease with himself. This wasn’t a character, no tricks to hide behind; this was just David, and he was happy with that. And that polite boy I met the first time, he was still here, polite and charming. He was always an exceptionally nice guy. If you knew him, you would have loved him, I promise you.”