Legendary Photographer Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal interviewed by Jimmy Steinfeldt
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 6/20/28 – Jimmy Steinfeldt: How often do you clean your lens?
Tom Gundelfinger O’Neal: A lot. Nothing like ruining a good photograph with a thumb smudge. However I’m not meticulous, using a bunch of cleaners. I basically breathe on the lens and wipe it with my t-shirt. Also I’m not cleaning the actual lens but rather the UV filter which does not jeopardize the lens. I’m careful to keep the actual glass covered at all times. To replace a UV filter is no big deal. I clean the eyepiece whenever I can and they’re not easy to clean.
JS: I use a Q-tip.
TGO: Great idea, I never thought of that.
JS: Who are some of the photographers who influenced you?
TGO: For shooting people I think number one is Irving Penn and also Richard Avedon, and Francesco Scavullo. What Edward Weston did was simply genius. He didn’t even have an enlarger, he just did things with a bare bulb and shot 8×10. The way he made his exposures most people would never even think of. His son’s Cole and Brett went on to be photographers. His grandson Kim is a friend of my wife and we see him and his wife Gina often. He is carrying on the legacy of his grandfather and also his father Cole Weston. I’m reading a book now about Edward Weston. Another guy that lived in same area is Ansel Adams. These photographers were on another plane.
When I was doing my Rock N Roll photography down here in L.A. I didn’t have a clue who these guys were and at that time I didn’t understand any of that type of photography. For me it was all about getting the film in the camera. It was simply a vehicle for me to connect with whom I was photographing. The connection for me is what photography is all about. You have to build a sense of trust with whom you are shooting. It can be difficult to do. More so today where people say “What are you going to do with those pictures, is it going to be on Ebay?”
JS: Who influenced you besides photographers?
TGO: Number one is Stanley Tigerman an architect who was a teacher of mine in college at University of Illinois in Chicago. He had just finished at Yale working with Josef Albers on an amazing color theory book. Tigerman’s artistry inspired me and I give him the biggest credit of all. The way he looked at a problem. Going into yourself to create something and letting it grow and explode. That’s the influence I got from him. Last year when I was doing a speaking engagement in Chicago I called him and told him he lit the fire and it’s still burning strong.
JS: What’s your primary camera today?
TGO: Canon 5D Mark IV. I have used the newer Sony camera. They are very very impressive. The megapixel war is basically over. Every camera company has lots of pixels. There are so many pixels now you can’t rapid fire too fast because it takes some time for each image to be recorded. The most important thing now is ISO. Right now Sony and Nikon are leading the way with very low light photography. Sony’s camera can get a great image in a dark closet with really no light just by using the program mode. Of course there will be a long exposure but you get an image that makes you think, what? How did the camera do that? I’m looking forward to where we have a noiseless 128,000 ISO. Not that many years ago anything over 400 ISO you were worried the image was going to fall apart.
JS: Your first camera?
TGO: The Exacta made in Germany with a Zeiss lens, incredibly sharp. It was set up completely backwards. Instead of advancing the film with your right thumb you advanced with your left. That took a while to get used to. Also it broke on me so it wasn’t as strong as some cameras. I then moved to the Pentax system. I wish I had gone to Nikon right away for their great glass. Guys like Henry Diltz, and Ed Caraeff shot with Nikon. Some people say it’s not the camera it’s the photographer. Well it’s helpful to have a great camera too.
Regarding the Sony A9, I was shooting in some corporate situations where I had the shutter down and you couldn’t hear a thing. People would say to me later “what were you doing I didn’t hear a thing?” It shoots up to 20 frames per second. Canon’s getting close with their quiet shutter.
Since I’m up near Pebble Beach I’ve had a pretty good career shooting major golf tournaments. Nothing will destroy a golfer more then an audible click. Imagine if you press the shutter ½ way down just for focusing but you accidently press the shutter a fraction more and your camera goes click before the golfer hits the ball! Whoa you are in trouble especially if it’s Tiger Woods. He’ll throw a club at you. The tournament will throw you out.
JS: What advice would you give a young person who wants to be a professional photographer?
TGO: It’s got to come from the heart. You’re not a robot going through a mechanical process. The moment that you choose to go click, that needs to come from corazon, the heart. When you are creating art with the camera it should be driven by emotion. This is true for all artists. Once you can get to that place, that’s when you can start to move towards being a professional. The young photographer needs to find the place where they connect with the process of taking photographs, not just connecting with the camera. I think the concept of mindfulness is useful. It’s useful to suspend all judgment. It’s important to clear your mind of all the extraneous stuff we have floating around in our minds, all our distractions. It’s related to meditation, it’s the idea of being in the moment. Relieve yourself of all the peripheral stuff (cell phones, etc). As an example I do some of my best work when I’m on vacation. When I’m away from the daily stuff we all have to deal with. So, the young photographer should strive get into ‘the zone’ and immerse themselves totally into the present moment. Be totally connected with what they are doing. This is the great discovery that the young photographer needs to make.
JS: What’s coming up next for you and your career?
TGO: I’m kinda reinventing myself with the speaking circuit I’m on. People find the stories behind the photo sessions very interesting. I make the presentation fun. Henry Diltz, and Ethan Russell have been doing this and giving great presentations. I’m actually speaking in July to a group of rocket scientists at NASA research center. What am I gong to say to people who build lunar rovers, Saturn 5 rockets, and put people on the moon? They are a brain trust and I’m just a photographer that goes click. But they want to hear my stories and they want to talk about photography. I customize every talk for the people I’m talking to.
As for photo sessions I have my corporate clients. I shot the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach in 2010. That was a big one when I had five photographers shooting with me. The challenges were amazing. I had access to be inside the ropes but you still need to know who to follow and who’s winning. It’s extremely challenging. Also I shoot for Rolex and they sponsor a lot of car events both race cars and vintage cars. The work has to be perfect. They need the photos right away because the photos go out on the internet as fast as I can shoot them.
I also shoot for a client who brings in famous guest speakers including Presidents of the United States. In these types of cases you have to be prepared in advance. You gotta know for instance that you say Mr. President. You don’t say “hi dude nice to meet you this will be a cool photo shoot.” I photographed president George Bush in a 20 minute photo session at the Broadmoor Hotel in Colorado Springs. I set up a photo studio in the hotel and was all prepared when the secret service said you have to leave the room now because we have to check all your equipment before the President arrives. A guy with a big vest and a really big German shepherd dog comes in and checks out everything. Five minutes later I’m told the President is ready.
So I walk back in and there’s President Bush standing in front of my backdrop. Not in the typical pose like I’ve seen others from Washington. Very stiff with an arched back. In this case President Bush was very relaxed and just looking around the room. I introduced my self “it’s an honor to meet you Mr. President I’m Tom O’Neal and I want you to know this photo shoot is going to be very”…and the President says “quick?” I said “Mr. President it will be quick and FUN! Do you like that?” He said “I like that.” Both he and I are wearing suits and ties. I noticed that the President had two chest hairs peaking out from under his shirt visible over his tie. I thought what am I going to say to the President. I point that out and he says sure go ahead and fix that. So I poke the President of the United States’ chest hairs back down out of site and I’m thinking to myself what am I doing? The president was great, very interactive. He says it like it is. Others I’ve photographed for my client who represents guest speakers include Hillary Clinton, Magic Johnson, Mitt Romney, and Peyton Manning.
JS: Please tell a Rock N Roll story from the good old days.
TGO: Steppenwolf did a show in Chicago and it was filmed. They got phenomenal footage. The record company loved it and wanted to do a live album. John Kay came to me while the rest of the band was on hiatus. He showed me an arts and crafts leather jacket with different shades of brown in the shape of a wolf’s head. It was like a Hells Angeles jacket with lots of studs on the back that spelled out Steppenwolf. I copied it and made an album cover out of it. ABC records made some test copies for a sales presentation to show buyers and rack jobbers. The rest of the band came back from hiatus and saw this album cover. They said “What is this? It’s a live album why didn’t you photograph a wolf?”
So here I was in the San Fernando Valley and I knew there were places where they rented animals for movies and TV. I went to the yellow pages and found a guy who had a giant wolf named Aquila. I went there and saw the wolf in a giant pen on dirt ground with gopher holes all around. I asked how close can I get? I had long hair then and a big beard. The owner said it wasn’t a good idea to get too close because Aquila was recently in a movie and one of the actors really mistreated the wolf. “That actor looks just like you! I wouldn’t go near that wolf. He could take your arm off in one bite.” I had a little bit of a telephoto lens. I hung out along side the pen watching him smell around and all of a sudden he’s down! He sees this little ground squirrel and the wolf is stalking, crawling along slowly. I think this is my shot. So I shot 4 rolls of film and got some pretty amazing shots . I go back and process the film and get everything ready to show the band.
It’s 2am and the band is wrapping up a meeting and I say I got it. They look at my photos on contact sheets with a lupe and they say “What’s this? And I say “Isn’t it amazing he’s stalking.” The band says “He’s not stalking he’s walking.” So we have this argument stalking versus walking. The band says “Look this is what we want. We want the wolf coming right at your throat! Right in your face. Mouth open, ears back, eyes dilated.” I’m thinking one bite and off with my arm. So I say to the band OK I’ll get it. I always try to work with people. You don’t just give the client what they need you give them what they want. So I left and thought about it and I contact the drummer Jerry Edmonton who had a wolf rug. I bring the rug back to my studio and put it on my tripod and photographed it against a black background. I added Steppenwolf spelled out in studs and some blood on the tongue. The band saw it and went crazy. That was the cover of the album and they used it as their logo for the next thirty years. So for a live album they got a dead wolf!
Hear tons of other great stories and see his legendary photographs in Tom’s book available at http://www.tgophoto.com/rock-book