London, Dec. 2009 - ArtSlant's writer, Alex Field, met with photo retoucher, Kevin O'Neill, to learn more about his life's work.
Kevin O'Neill; Courtesy of O'Neill
“I got a call from a photographer’s agent the other day, and she asked, ‘Who have you worked for?’ and I said, ‘How long have you got?’...” Kevin O’Neill smiles as he remembers the hapless agent’s reaction as he rattled off his client list down the phone. “I love being asked that one” he admits.
As one of the last traditional photographic retouchers in the UK, O’Neill has worked for a vast variety of big name photographers, from David Bailey to Lord Snowdon via Anton Corbijn, Lord Litchfield and a host of others. Now holed up in a bunker-like studio in Farringdon, central London, he has become the go-to-guy for artists and galleries looking to perfect the presentation of their photographs before they are put up for sale or exhibition. This involves manually taking out scratches, dust and any other marks that make the images less than picture perfect, a dying art in the Photoshop age.
Londoner O’Neill is softly spoken but animated, flicking through a monograph as he talks and pointing out images to illustrate his memories. He is clearly very much at home in his corner of the studio, his drawing board, tools and chemicals at the ready while his colleagues work on large computer screens and scanners. His telephone rings twice during our conversation as galleries request his time and expertise; this is obviously a man in demand, but also one who clearly enjoys being busy. Surrounded by boxes of prints and books of photographs, his old-school talents contrast with the hum of computers and whirr of printers in the background.
Now 54, O’Neill has been in this industry for nearly 40 years, starting his career as an art studio’s messenger boy after leaving school. “I didn’t want a proper job...like sitting in an office” he says, “art was the only thing I was any good at, I was useless at everything else...but I went to one place and they showed me all these album covers and adverts I knew and I thought, ‘yeah’.”
After a year of carrying parcels and making tea, O’Neill was taken on permanently and began to learn the ropes of photographic retouching from a series of mentors within the company. “The whole thing at the time wasn’t making things up, or montaging things together”, he says, “it was all to compensate for how bad the printing presses were.” He describes how the outlines and shadows on photographs had to be grossly exaggerated so that when they were printed in greyscale in newspapers they would come out looking normal. In the past four decades, he says, the industry has changed “utterly”.
In the age of digital photography, computers have all but taken over. “I’ve had near brushes with them a few times” O’Neill laughs, “but I prefer being the only retoucher around really”. Despite the popularity of digital manipulation, O’Neill remains in demand. “There are about four galleries now that just specialise in old black and white images” he says, and all of them call on him regularly as “people have paid £4,000 or £5,000 for a print and it’s got to be perfect.” Manual retouching is relatively risk free in that a mistake can be remedied by re-printing the image and starting again, and O’Neill has so far avoided any disasters. He stresses that the main problems with being alone in this profession are manufacturers discontinuing necessary products when they stop being profitable, and having no-one to help share the work load. “What I’d like is to meet another retoucher so that when I get really busy I could pass some work over, that would be fantastic” he says.
Anton Corbijn, U2, Death Valley, USA, 1986; Courtesy Anton Corbijn
Anton Corbijn remains O’Neill’s favourite photographer and he lights up as he flicks through a large box of the artist’s prints. “He’s my man, he’s really got the eye” O’Neill says, remembering a near miss with a Corbijn photograph, New Year’s Day, a striking image of a naked woman looking out across Manhattan’s cloudless sky. A single minute bird flies across the scene, and O’Neill remembers almost removing what looked like an imperfection and was in fact the photograph’s centrepiece.
The future of traditional photographic retouching is uncertain, but O’Neill believes the “digital-analogue battle will go on for years” yet. Certainly while the demand is there he will continue to work on photographic prints that need perfecting. “I’m the man to call when every other possibility has been exhausted” he says, putting his prowess down to not being scared of photographs. “They [printers] are terrified of inkjets and photographs”, he observes, perhaps explaining why he is still so much in demand, and is effectively keeping this industry alive. “You get people phoning up in a panic saying ‘I’ve just got these prints and they look awful, is there anything you can do?’...and you say ‘that’s fine, I can fix that’...”
ArtSlant would like to thank Kevin O'Neill for his assistance in making this interview possible.