Hanging on the colorfully painted walls of Tom O’Neal’s Carmel Valley studio are framed photographs of rock-and-roll legends. There are so many black-and-white images of famous faces and rock bands like Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Joni Mitchell, Steppenwolf and The Mamas and The Papas, that it takes awhile to comprehend that O’Neal shot them all. Album covers shot and designed by O’Neal are framed on the walls as well. The most well-known cover, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s “Deja Vu,” is so famous that it’s surprising to realize that the relaxed man standing next to it was the creator. That the shots are so strong is partly due to the incredible access O’Neal gained over many years of hanging out with rock stars.
“For me it was the hardest and most boring to take stage shots,” he says. “I didn’t want nostril shots. I like one on one.”
Born in Los Angeles as Tom Gundelfinger, O’Neal grew up riding his bike to school in Beverly Hills with Barry Diller. “We lived up the street from Lucille Ball and Jack Benny,” he says.
In the ’60s, O’Neal studied fine art at the University of Illinois and The Art Institute of Chicago, and then went to Paris to study painting at a small school.
“The background I had was not influenced by psychedelic poster artists,” he says. “I got the fundamental basics of painting and design from school.”
A friend from Paris invited O’Neal to visit him in his hometown of Pacific Grove when he returned to the States. O’Neal came for a visit and stayed, finding work at a physician’s office in Monterey taking before-and-after pictures of people who had plastic surgery. After work, O’Neal, then in his early twenties, was allowed to use the darkroom for his own photography. Inspired by a 1966 album cover of The Mamas and The Papas, O’Neal started tweaking photographs to reflect the evolving art of the times.
“At night I would experiment with photo illustration and hand paint on photographs,” he says.
In the summer of 1967, O’Neal read in the newspaper that record producer Lou Adler, musician John Phillips and producer Terry Melcher were coming to Monterey to promote the Monterey Pop Festival. He decided to find a way to show them his “different” take on photos.
“I saw a picture in PlayboyMagazine of the Mamas and Papas and I rephotographed it and did my own special treatment to it,” he says. “I psychedelicized it.”
Then all it took was gaining access to the group.
“Terry and I went to K-3 and high school together,” he says.“I thought, I’ll stand out in front of City Hall when these guys arrive in their limo…Terry wasn’t there, but Michelle [Phillips] was. I’d never get to do this today, there would be security. I said [to Lou Adler,] “Can I show you something?’ and showed him my photo. He said, ‘That’s really cool, come on in.’ There was the police chief, the supervisor, the mayor, and all of sudden, I’m in the meeting as a fly on the wall.”
O’Neal scored a photo pass, then ran into another friend in town from Los Angeles, who was close friends with the manager of the Byrds. “She said, ‘If you can get David Crosby and the Byrds, I’ll make sure their manager sees them.’”
“I get all these pictures [at Monterey Pop] and send them to LA, and the next thing I get a phone call that the manger of the Byrds wants to see me and I’m getting assignments to photograph rock bands,” O’Neal says.
O’Neal spent the next eight years in Los Angeles hanging out with emerging artists from Joni Mitchell to Canned Heat to Jim Croce to David Crosby to Steppenwolf.
“The Monterey Pop Festival was simply a launch pad for me,” he says. “Two years after I met Lou Adler, I was doing John Phillips’ first solo album cover.”
O’Neal continued to produce unique effects with his photographs and album designs, using colored magic markers on high-contrast images, and for Steppenwolf ’s breakup album, shooting police officers standing at a sheriff ’s funeral with infrared film, and ordering a carved tombstone with the dates of the band’s existence.
“I like to say I got inside the glitter,” he says.“It was a time of hanging out, no managers, no press agents. I was in it 24-7. It was my life. There was an innocence about it. When the innocence was lost, the music changed. I never got into the drug scene…marijuana was flowing in many photo sessions and I saw a lot of abuse of drugs. I left LA when the drug of choice became cocaine. I saw people’s lives change and friendships [destroyed.] I left LA in the mid-’70s for a break and never really went back.”
Today, O’Neal and his wife Mollie, a dancer and choreographer, run their Carmel Valley business,TGO Photography. Son Dugan, 24, makes music videos, and son Casey, 21, is an artist who produces unique wall installations and uses some of O’Neal’s images on clothing.
But the rock-n-roll photographer who helped Joni Mitchell learn how to drive a stick shift has come full circle. His photographs are perhaps in even higher circulation today than when he shot them. “Just last month, my 24-year-old son gave me a contemporary magazine with a picture of a group holding John Phillips’ “The Wolf King of LA” album cover,” O’Neal says.
What is perhaps most striking is that O’Neal talks about his past so casually, and seems most interested in looking toward the future.
The future includes photographing weddings (O’Neal and TGO photographer Marc Howard shot more than 50 last year); shooting model portfolios; portraits; advertisements; and doing corporate work for companies like Pebble Beach.
O’Neal still does album covers, although now they are CDs, like the cover for “The Best of the Three Tenors.” “We’re tied into the corporate world and I’m proud of that,” he says.“It’s a big jump from rock-and-roll bands who destroy the furniture in the Plaza Hotel.”
O’Neal’s endless energy and enthusiasm for life keeps him younger than he ever imagined he would feel at his age.
“I’m 65, and I’m on fire,” he says. “I love it. I thought 65 was going to be, ‘Son, can you get my slippers?’ I’ve got more business than I can handle.”
Because O’Neal owns the rights to so many images, he is constantly fielding requests for reprints. “Record companies aren’t making any money so they are calling us to sell photographs,” he says.
Upcoming projects include collaborating on music documentaries and a possible group show with other famous rock photographers. And, O’Neal keeps experimenting with photography techniques, including a recent moonlit photo session on the beach.
“I could stop photography today and just spend time printing out what I have,” he says.“I didn’t want to stay stuck there. It’s a permanent part of my career and it won’t go away. It gets more popular. But we’re doing our best work now.”
To reach TGO Photography, call 831/659-5040 or go to www.tgophoto.com