Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal Interview – Capturing Rock Royalty
Photographer Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal was at the heart of the West Coast psychedelic-music boom in the 1960s, shooting album covers and portraits for rock royalty such as Jimi Hendrix, Joni Mitchell and Jim Morrison. Teri Saccone meets the man behind the lens…
Despite 2017 marking his 50th year as a photographer and sleeve artist, there’s a childlike enthusiasm radiating from Tom O’Neal that’s infectious. His more-than-70 album covers and rock portraits captured the essence of the late-60s West Coast psychedelic scene. He shot visceral images of Jimi, Jagger, Joni, Janis and Jim, and O’Neal’s innate ability to fuse an instant rapport with musicians was a key component of his success.
Long Live Vinyl became immersed in Tom’s world at his Monterey, California offices, decorated with his iconic images and Gold albums – and we were immediately charmed by his genuine warmth and high energy levels.
Raised in Beverly Hills, Tom relocated to Chicago to study art at university in 1967; he returned to California to attend the Monterey Pop Festival, which proved to be his professional anointment. He utilised his camera “more as a paintbrush than a tool for photo journalism”. When he began, he went by his family surname of Gundelfinger, before marrying and taking his wife’s name, O’Neal.
“I went to Monterey Pop with the intention of becoming a rock photographer, because I had an epiphany at a record store, going through the racks. I felt that with my art background, this was something I could do.
“I came out of that store knowing this is what I wanted, even if I didn’t know how I’d get there. Monterey was the launchpad for Otis, Hendrix, Janis and others. DA Pennebaker’s film made them international superstars. For me, that festival was the intersection of serendipity and good luck. I moved to LA in ’68 and was soon working on album covers, and the transition of my career from the last night of Monterey Pop to the following year was huge. By the time I’d see Jimi again in ’68 at the Fillmore, I was a bona-fide rock photographer.”
O’Neal’s innate exuberance and dedication to his craft quickly won over many in the industry. He explains that it was never a matter of just showing up for a shoot with his camera and then clicking away. Instead, it was about sparking connections with his legendary subjects, finding a way to earn their trust, then procuring pictures. In the supersonic-paced world we now inhabit, this slow-burn approach seems personal and synergistic, and his nuanced images bear this out.
Also, the processes O’Neal and his contemporaries used for album art were handmade ones – there were no computers or digital tools at their disposal. It was, as he aptly describes it, “very organic”. O’Neal admits experimenting with these pioneering techniques was a process of trial and error, as there were no manuals on how to achieve the effects he desired.
“I had an epiphany at a record store, going through the racks. I felt that with my art background, rock photography was something I could do”
His most celebrated cover, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu, illustrates this ‘analogue’ approach. “We used a camera that was 150 years old,” he explains of the iconic sleeve. “I worked several months to perfect the tintype, a daguerreotype technique that they posed for with minutes of absolute stillness. It was Stephen Stills’ idea to do it in that Civil War-era theme.
“Years later, I asked him why he was so fascinated with having an antique-looking 1860s-era album cover. He said it was because he ‘totally admired the rebellious spirit of the Confederacy’. Stephen is a Southerner, and dressed as a Confederate for the picture.”
At the time, notorious music executive David Geffen was the band’s co-manager and was anxious to get the much-anticipated second album released.
“They were huge and the album had pre-sold almost a million copies. But the band didn’t want to rush it and wanted an authentic cover,” Tom recalls. “The lettering was gold-stamped and was done via hand application for every single copy. None of it done by machine. The simulated leather was made in the only paper mill in the US that could produce that tremendous leather-like feel. The album was extremely successful, too.”
It sold in excess of eight million units, and the high visual aesthetic was matched by its transcendentally timeless music.
O’Neal cherishes the friendships he’s made (some ephemeral, others still existing today) with the likes of Neil Young and Graham Nash.
“I treasured both the connectivity to some of these wonderful people and the freedom I had,” he recalls.
O’Neal favoured a collaborative work process. “I’d pick a place that made the artist feel comfortable,” he says. “I’d shoot in black and white and colour. Then I’d process all the film and go meet with the band, preferably in the studio, because they’d likely still be recording. So I’d set up my slide projector, take a blank album cover and project my transparencies onto that. We’d look through the slides and we’d come up with ideas, and it worked great.”
Although he had a wild thatch of hair, which he adorned with a bandana – “to keep my hair out of my eyes, rather than a fashion statement”, O’Neal asserts that he was less a hippie and more of an artistic bohemian: “I was educated at private schools and didn’t buy into the whole hippie vernacular of ‘far out’, etc, as grammar and syntax were important to me.”
Because he grew up in Beverly Hills amongst the progeny of both television and film stars of the day, O’Neal did not treat rock stars as the mythical creatures others might.
“I was a paperboy as a kid and we lived amongst the Hollywood elite of that time, so it was natural for me to not be starstruck by these musicians, despite being enthralled by their incredible talents.”
O’Neal’s own values informed some of his business choices: “If I felt a band might be asking me to create something that was not respectful to women or had questionable taste, I refused.” An example of this is Steely Dan’s debut Can’t Buy A Thrill. Tom worked closely with their former label ABC/Dunhill as an art director, so was approached to do the cover – but refused because the band adopted their name from a dildo in William Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Admittedly, Tom had not heard the touchstone album prior to his refusal.
“I’m a huge fan of them, and had I heard the album, I’d not have passed on them, as I was put off only by their name,” he admits.
These days, O’Neal works largely on commercial projects. He’s photographed two US Presidents and a string of high-end advertising campaigns. As we go to press, he is readying his book, From Monterey Pop To Déjà Vu And Beyond: Memoirs Of A Rock ’N’ Roll Photographer. The rough-hewn cover, adorned with masking tape, will remain looking like a mockup. It’s informal and approachable, like Tom himself.
“The book is going to start with Monterey and will cover psychedelic art in our culture and how it evolved. It will explore my view of living through that era,” says Tom. “There was some really cool art that came out of that time, and these days, I’m still doing cool stuff.”
Besides the imminent book, O’Neal is a spokesperson for the 50th anniversary of Monterey Pop, with a new festival marking the occasion in September. Lastly, what does he think comprises a great album cover?
“You had to hook them with uniqueness, shock or beauty,” he says. “The display racks only allowed the top 25 per cent to be visible, so you’d have to make that arresting enough so they’d pull it out, turn it round and buy it.” At his core a deeply emotional soul, O’Neal concludes: “When you create from the heart, you touch a heart.”
Our journey with Tom continues as we look at some of his most iconic work in Essential Covers. Click here to continue.