Since his first world exclusive in 1974, Richard Young has been photographing Hollywood royalty like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. The Resident visits the photographer at the Richard Young Gallery in Kensington, where he launched his new celebrity-rich coffee table book, Nightclubbing 

How do you feel when you look back on your work?
Surprised! Proud. Happy that I have accomplished something in my life over 43 years that I never thought I would. I look at the embodiment of work we have done and the people we have met and it’s astonishing. It’s not really to do with being a good photographer, it’s to do with how you are as a person. What has got me close to these people is having a sense of humour, trying to be a bit crazy and wacky, as well as polite and trustworthy. All those things add up.

Are you ever surprised at the hunger for celebrity access?
There wasn’t that much interest in showbiz when I first started back in 1973. It wasn’t until the early 80s that it developed into a situation where I thought, maybe there’s something here. Don’t forget it was still long before reality shows – thank god – and the internet and mobile phones all that, so in the beginning it was still pretty new.

I remember having a coffee in Fleet Street with a Picture Editor and saying, ‘I want to give this up, no-one shows any interest’, and he said – and I will never forget these words – ‘stick with it’. I am so happy I did! We have such a body of work – this is just a skim of the surface you see here, there are different stories that still have to surface…

40 years of Richard Young's celebrity photographs

Jack Nicholson, photographed at Claridge’s in 1978

How did it feel piecing together the photos for Nightclubbing?
You’re talking to the wrong person. My wife Susan put it all together! It was her passion. All the photos are mine, of course, but she has a bigger passion for that nightclubbing scene than I do. From when it starts in 1973/74 up to about 89 I was still involved in the club scene and hanging out, but then it dropped off a bit. In the 90s it all became bottles of five-grand vodka, VIP areas and security, and people stopped smoking in nightclubs.

Smoking in clubs gave it such an atmosphere and such a camaraderie between people – let’s have a smoke, let’s have a drink. When they took the smoking away people had to go outside in the streets. That’s not very elegant if some woman is wearing a beautiful Versace dress and Jimmy Choo shoes standing outside with a cigarette in her hand. It changed the whole focus on nightlife. 

You’re not going to see Jack Nicholson like that any more, you’re not going to see Sophie Loren posing for a bunch of photographers… they just don’t do it any more. They were the grand dames and masters 

What makes a good photo?
Well, you’re not going to see Jack Nicholson like that any more, you’re not going to see Sophie Loren posing for a bunch of photographers. Not because they may have passed on, but the fact being they just don’t do it any more, they were the grand dames and masters. What we are left with now is a very young crowd who, like Andy Warhol said, everybody is going to be famous for 15 minutes, but like David Bailey said it may be five seconds!

The day I photographed Bob Marley was one of the happiest days of my life, knowing that I captured that image. I didn’t know I had that image because I was still shooting on black and white film, I had to wait a little while to see what came out in the process. That was the beauty of early photography, the processing method and not knowing what you have got. If you’re looking on the back of a digital Nikon camera and you have got it wrong you can just say, ‘excuse me, can I do it again please?’ But once you do that, the magic has gone.

40 years of Richard Young's celebrity photographs

Bob Marley at Crystal Palace in 1980

Do you miss ‘the beauty of early photography’?
I don’t miss film because I am doing it again. People come into the gallery, sit downstairs and I photograph them on black and white film. We only do one roll of film on each subject. In about 1980 French Vogue commissioned me to go to the National Theatre to photograph Sir Cecil Beaton photographing Sir Ralph Richardson on stage. The picture they wanted was me photographing in the same frame as Beaton with Richardson. Beaton he came up on stage and took about five pictures and I went over to him afterwards and said, ‘excuse me sir, you only took five pictures’. He said, ‘dear boy, if I can’t get it on one roll of film it’s not worth trying’. That’s where I got the idea for the walk ins and it’s worked quite well up till now. Our first sitting was with Elle McPherson and that came out really nice.

With such good cameras on smart phones, can anyone be a photographer?
I like the fact that people are taking pictures. A long time ago no one took pictures, you never saw anyone walking around with a camera. It’s nice to see them doing that. 

How did you come to be a photographer?
It was definitely by chance, being in the right place at the right time. Someone throws a camera in your hand one day asking ‘do you know anything about photography?’ and you say ‘yes’, lying through your teeth. You go off with their big Nikon camera with three rolls of black and white film, do these architectural pictures in the West Country, come back and not one photo came out! So yes, there was bit of luck! He let me keep the camera more or less on permanent loan and I went out and taught myself how to use it, and in a matter of six weeks of I got my first world exclusive picture [John Paul Getty III snapped in London].

People ask me what has been the best picture you have ever taken and I always say, ‘I haven’t taken it yet’

The phone never rang though, I was still working in a bookshop, still living in a £6 a week rent in Holland Park. But I had this camera and I kept on taking pictures. Having sold those first pictures to the Evening Standard they were ringing me two to three times a week, and the following year in 74 they rang me and sent me to the The Dorchester to try and get a picture of Liz Taylor and Richard Burton. Thank god I successfully gatecrashed the birthday party and got the main picture of my whole life! People ask me what has been the best picture you have ever taken and I always say, ‘I haven’t taken it yet’, But in actual fact I took it the first 18 months I became a photographer.

Do you have a top three photos?
Definitely Liz Taylor and Richard Burton, probably Bob Marley because I am a big fan and the opportunity to sit there with him and make him laugh was great. The other is Marvin Gaye, sitting in the back of a car. Again another weird situation, how come I am sitting in the back of the Limo with Marvin Gaye, who is probably one of the greatest soul singers of our time? Why am I sitting in the back of a Limo with Marvin Gaye!? Absolutely surreal.

40 years of Richard Young's celebrity photographs

Richard Young’s gallery in Kensington

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