25 candid photos of icons who shaped pop culture

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaElvis was rarely seen smiling, but this photographer captured it on camera.
  • Throughout the ’60, ’70s, and ’80s, Oscar Abolafia took photographs of Hollywood and music industry icons.
  • He loved taking photos of famous actors like Robert Redford, Bette Davis, and Lucille Ball. Musical legends including Madonna, Elvis, Frank Sinatra, David Bowie, and Cher also appeared in his work.
  • Each of Abolafia’s candid photos shows a rare side of these stars that many never got to see.
  • He compiled some of his best photos in a book titled “Icons.”
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

When photographer Oscar Abolafia wanted to take pictures of celebrities in the ’60s and ’70s, he would simply knock on their doors and ask to come in. More often than not, these A-listers would welcome him into their homes, into their parties, and into their lives.

The result was a set of candid photos showing some of the biggest stars in celebrity history. Abolafia – whose work appeared in People Magazine, Vanity Fair, and Harper’s Bazaar – compiled his favourite celebrity images in a picture book titled “Icons.” Insider spoke with Abolafia to hear about his favourite images from the collection and to learn about the stories behind each one.

From Jackie Kennedy Onassis smoking a cigarette to Elvis giving a rarely seen smile, these are the best candid photos of icons from that special time in pop culture history.


Abolafia said the key to every one of his photographs is capturing emotion in the celebrity’s eyes, like this one of Elizabeth Taylor at the Plaza Hotel in New York City.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaElizabeth Taylor.

Abolafia said he became close friends with Taylor when he joined her and her husband, John Warner, on the campaign trail.

“She was a very interesting lady,” he said. “She was always a very good photograph.”

But the photo above, which he took in 1967, is his favourite. “It’s in the eyes, it’s in the face,” he said. “It’s almost sad. It’s like the Mona Lisa. It’s perfect, and it’s really her.”


Faye Dunaway’s eyes are the focal point of this image from 1967.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaFaye Dunaway.

Abolafia captured this candid photo at the New York premiere of “Bonnie and Clyde.”


While Elvis’ eyes are interesting in this photograph, it’s his rarely seen grin that’s the real showstopper.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaElvis.

Abolafia said this image of Elvis in 1969 at the International Hotel in Las Vegas is another example of the eyes being the focal point of his images – but he also loves the way Elvis is smiling.

“It was magical,” Abolafia said. “It was special.”


Abolafia called this photograph of Elvis, Frank Sinatra, and Fred Astaire “one in a million.”

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaElvis, Frank Sinatra, and Fred Astaire.

The picture was taken in 1969 at an opening night party for Nancy Sinatra, which was held in Las Vegas’ International Hotel.

“No one’s going to get a picture like that again,” Abolafia said.


Similarly, this photo of Jackie Kennedy Onassis in 1975 is one of a kind.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaJackie Kennedy.

Abolafia said this is his favourite photo of the former first lady because it captured a very rare moment.

“I didn’t know Jackie smoked, and I don’t think anybody did,” he said.

He was able to capture it by waiting for the moment the door to the green room opened at the American Ballet Theatre at Lincoln Centre. She didn’t know she was being photographed.


Abolafia admitted he didn’t love taking pictures of Jackie Kennedy because he felt she was always being shuffled to and from events.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaJacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

“She is not a subject I like to go after, but I need to,” he said, explaining that the publications he worked for always loved photos of the former first lady.

This picture, for example, was taken in 1972 near Palm Beach, Florida, as Kennedy Onassis was leaving her yacht to get to the Palm Beach Yacht Club.


Abolafia did, however, love taking pictures of famous actors like Bette Davis.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaBette Davis.

This photo of Davis “smoking her brains out” was taken in 1973 at the Rainbow Room in Rockefeller Centre.


But his favourite picture of Davis is this one. It shows her surrounded by fans and paparazzi in 1973.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaBette Davis.

Abolafia said he loves this picture, which was taken outside Town Hall in New York City, because of the angle.

“I will get this picture if it means the end of my career,” Abolafia said, remembering the moment he took the photo. “It’s a winning picture.”


Abolafia said he was “blessed” for getting this special photo of Lucille Ball.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaLucille Ball.

This photo was taken in 1974 at an after-party for her movie “Mame.” Abolafia said he thinks she might have been laughing at someone who said something about her husband.

“I was blessed with the picture of her doing something unusual, and that’s just her life,” he said. “She was that way.”


Another actor Abolafia loved to photograph was Robert Redford. Here he is while taking a break from filming.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaRobert Redford.

This photo was taken in 1977 on the set of “A Bridge Too Far” in the Netherlands.


Twiggy was caught playing with this flower backstage in 1967.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaTwiggy.

In 1967, Twiggy was a “very hot item” and everyone wanted a picture of her, Abolafia said. When he went backstage at the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, he offered Twiggy a rose. He thought she would put it in her hair, but instead, she placed it jokingly above her lip.

“She was brilliant,” Abolafia said. “That’s what made her a great model.”


Abolafia’s work also includes images of icons in the music industry, like David Bowie.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaDavid Bowie.

This photo was taken in 1987 in New York City as the musician rehearsed for a Pepsi Cola concert tour.


But this is Abolafia’s favourite photo of the singer.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaDavid Bowie.

Abolafia captured this photo in 1987 at a press conference for David Bowie’s concert “Glass Spider.” The photographer said he remembers asking Bowie to show him his suspenders. When the musician did, Abolafia snapped the photo.


Cher was also among the musical icons he loved to photograph.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaCher.

This somber picture of Cher was taken backstage at Madison Square Garden in 1968.

“That was in the early days when she was still singing with Sonny,” Abolafia said.


Abolafia even photographed a young Michael Jackson at Studio 54.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaMichael Jackson.

This photo of the pop star was taken in 1978.


This image of Madonna in 1986 is also one of the photographer’s favourites.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaMadonna.

In 1986, Madonna was filming the movie “Who’s That Girl” in New York, and production closed off one of the city’s blocks. To get close, Abolafia lied and told the officials he lived on that block, so they let him through. He then knocked on a random apartment’s door and asked to be let inside to use a window for a better view.

“I was very lucky to be in the right spot when she was taking a break,” he said. “She was chewing gum and blowing bubbles, and I got that picture.”


Abolafia also captured this candid moment between the members of The Rolling Stones.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaThe Rolling Stones.

This picture was taken in 1981 at an after-party in New York City following their concert at Madison Square Garden.


Abolafia remembers taking this picture of Julio Iglesias on New Year’s Eve after a stressful photo shoot.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaJulio Iglesias.

Abolafia wanted to take a picture of Iglesias on New Year’s Eve with one of the first babies born in the new year. When the baby arrived for the photo shoot, the child wouldn’t stop crying, so they had to stop the shoot. They had to get a second baby, but that one didn’t stop crying either. Instead, Abolafia decided to abandon the concept and just take a picture of the singer before he went on stage for a performance.

“It would have been a better photo [with the baby],” Abolafia said, “but you got to make it work.”


Neil Diamond is pictured in a recording studio practicing “Sweet Caroline.”

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaNeil Diamond.

This picture was taken in New York City in 1969.


Debbie Harry was captured during a rare moment of calm in 1987.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaDebbie Harry.

This photo was taken in 1987 in the green room at the American Ballet Theatre in New York City.


At the “Fight of the Century,” Abolafia turned his camera on Frank Sinatra.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaFrank Sinatra.

In 1971, Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier in what was dubbed the “Fight of the Century” at Madison Square Garden. At the fight, Abolafia was able to sit ringside, but he was eventually told he had to give up his seat. When he demanded to be told why he had to move, he learned Frank Sinatra planned to take photos from that seat.

“I said, ‘Come on, give me a break. Sinatra is gonna sit here? What, he’s going to photograph the show?'” Abolafia said. “I said, ‘If he shows up, I’ll give him the seat.'”

Sure enough, Sinatra showed up with his own camera. Abolafia got out of the seat – but not without first photographing the singer just as he was sitting down.


At the same fight, Abolafia snapped this photograph of Muhammad Ali.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaMuhammad Ali.

Abolafia wasn’t only interested in actors and musicians. He also photographed icons of the athletic world, like Ali.


Abolafia photographed directors, too. Here, Steven Spielberg joked around with his playbill at an awards show in 1986.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaSteven Spielberg.

When Abolafia took pictures of Spielberg at the Golden Plate Awards in 1986, he was disappointed with the standard pictures he was getting, so he told the director to do something interesting. In response, Spielberg rolled up his program and put it to his eye.

“It’s a brilliant picture,” Abolafia said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more brilliant.”


He even captured this rare photo of comedian Johnny Carson.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaJohnny Carson.

Abolafia was invited to photograph Carson flying a plane in the desert in California in 1968. The photographer asked to have his own plane so that he could follow Carson and photograph him in the sky, but that didn’t end up working.

“It is so difficult to photograph another plane while they’re flying. It’s very hard,” Abolafia said. “I was so happy to be on the ground again, and I photographed him.”


Abolafia even caught Andy Warhol drawing a butterfly on actress Leigh Taylor-Young’s thigh.

Courtesy of Oscar AbolafiaAndy Warhol.

This photo was taken in 1967 at a nightclub on East 59th Street in New York City.

Abolafia said icons like Warhol are no longer valued in our culture like they were in the ’60s and ’70s.

“We don’t have icons anymore,” he said. “We have influencers. They don’t have real talent. They only have their attractiveness.”

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