Think of many of the most iconic faces of the past four decades and you’ll find they have one thing in common - they have all been photographed by Richard Young. The most gentlemanly of photographers, he has built his career on being in the right place at the right time, with the right attitude, and is liked and respected by all who cross his path. This year marks his fortieth anniversary in the business, which he loves now just as much as when he bagged his first exclusive shot of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton back in the 1970s. Meet a man who’s definitely not ready to hang up his hat…
Richard, you’ve been behind a lens for four decades. How has your industry changed in that time?
If you look back at my career and of my contemporaries, I think none of us set out to be photographers. It was something we fell into through other channels – we were thrilled when we started making money out of it. Now there is such a celebrity-driven culture; people want to know what someone is doing at any given time, day or night. There’s a lot of space to fill in print and online, and photographers can make big money from generating the right pictures. One big hit can set you up for life, but as the people in front of the lens become more aware that photographers are there, those pictures are getting harder to come by.
What makes a good celebrity photo?
When I started out, a celebrity was someonewho had a talent - an actor, singer, writer, artist, musician, or sportsman – and who you would see on the scene, in restaurants and first-night parties. They were much more accessible than they are today and that’s when you’d catch those great unplanned shots that would become a cover. These days some celebrities may not have a talent and become celebrities only because the public puts them on a pedestal. Nobody really wants to see a bad photo of someone they look up to or admire, and I’ve never set out to take one. I like to show people having a good time and being real, but equally I feel a responsibility to my audience to keep the mystery and aspirational side of celebrity going. Combining those two elements is what makes a good photograph.
You famously befriended your first celebrity during your school days. Did this reinforce your view that celebrities aren’t to be feared or revered?
Mark Feld was the sharpest-dressed kid in my school. He would turn up in handmade shirts and suits aged 12-years old. Our parents both had stalls on Berwick Street Market and that’s how we met. Nobody was surprised when he went on to become Marc Bolan and make an international name for himself. I started out in the fashion business where my first job was working in Dalston High Street for a men’s clothes shop called Smart Weston. After some months my mum got me a job in Old Compton Street working for John Michael in Sportique. The Beatles used to come in to buy their polo-neck sweaters to wear under their suits. They were such nice ordinary blokes who were just becoming the biggest stars in the world. I was starting to meet some amazing people working there, and I was only 16 years old!
You have photographed some people over the course of their entire career, creating a catalogue of their lives. How have you adapted the way you show them?
It hasn’t really changed that much. I like to think I’m very respectful of the people I’ve known for a long time. Attitudes change and the hell-raisers of yesterday are the health freaks of today, and obviously everyone ages. I think that with the people I've known the longest, there is a defiance in front of the lens, a look that says ‘yes, I'm still here and I’m still at the top of my game’. We’ve lost some amazing people over the years and the ones who are left are survivors. It’s great. People are living longer and I’m proud to have been a part of their careers for so long.
Who are the ones that got away, the people you’ve never captured on camera?
I’ve had breakfast with Nelson Mandela, lunch with the Dalai Lama, and even though I’ve photographed Bob Dylan, there’s no one more that I would love to have dinner with. What would we talk about? Well, I’m sure he’s been asked every conceivable question about music, so I wouldn’t go there. I would talk to him about his clothes: I love fashion and I love the way he dresses. I would have talked about fashion with Elvis Presley too, had I ever had the opportunity to meet him. My dream combination would have been The King, Lennon and Hendrix, now that would have been a shot!
Has anyone ever turned their lens on you?
Touché! There are pictures of me out there in the ether but I wouldn’t say that I make a habit of stepping in front of the lens.
You’ve said many times that you never planned to be a photographer. What did you want to be when you were young?
I wanted to be a chef. I wanted to go to the catering college on Haverstock Hill. I come from a Jewish background where food is everything. Cooking classes meant that you got to eat what you cooked, which seemed like a good deal to me. It never happened, though, as the training and equipment were more than my parents could afford.
London has been the backdrop for so many of your photographs. How has the capital changed in your eyes?
As a kid, London was my playground. We didn’t have much money and my parents had to work very hard to keep us all afloat. I was left to my own devices and spent a lot of my time trainspotting steam trains until I discovered the West End girls and music! If I had to mourn the loss of anything on our streets, it would be the steam trains. In general, though, I don’t think London has ever looked so good. You have to go away and come back again to realise what a fantastic city we have the privilege of living in.
Photography is an art form that has become incredibly sought after. How do you feel about your work being so collectible?
There are some images that are just too great to be hidden in a drawer, so I'm pleased that photography is being recognised in such a way and bought as art. The thing about photography is that it captures a moment in time, which no other art form can really do. Look at Steven Berkoff’s wonderful photographs of the East End in the 1960s – there’s no way you could have created them without a camera.
You’re exhibiting a previously unpublished archive of photographs entitled ‘Pret-a-Photo’. What’s the most exciting find you’ve come across?
I think my wife Susan, who has been so instrumental in putting the exhibition together, would tell you that there is a very sweet poignancy to the picture of Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall on their first date outside Langan’s: they look so happy. There is also a great picture of Yves St Laurent. He was a very shy and reserved man and so it was a privilege to capture him in a light that I hope reflected his personal side.
How do you feel about the world now, where everyone lives through their camera and photographs every detail of their life?
There is good and bad in knowing too much about someone, and a fine line between keeping things interesting or it all just disintegrating into the mundane.
You’ve been based in a quiet corner of Kensington for many years. What do you love about your neighbourhood?
It’s a wonderful place to live, plain and simple. I walk in the park, spend many an evening at The Electric and eat in the neighbourhood restaurants, Essenza and Mediterraneo. I’m asked sometimes why I don’t move back to Hackney, where I started out, but the truth is that I lived there as a boy and not as an adult and so I have no point of reference there. The people who made Hackney special for me – my mum and dad and other older family members – aren’t there any more. My family has grown up around here and this is what keeps me here – that feeling of attachment and establishment.
Your daughter is a photographer now. Will she or any other young bloods persuade you to hang up your camera?
My daughter Hannah is following in my footsteps, she is a wonderful photographer and has a great eye. One day, I will eventually pass the baton onto her, however not just yet. My dad worked in the markets until he was 79, and I have every intention of carrying on until I am unable to hold a camera up to my eye. There is no reason to stop, I love what I do.
You famously courted restaurateurs in order to put yourself in the right place, which establishments currently receive your patronage?
Well I don't court the restaurants anymore, however my favourite restaurants are Le Caprice, The Electric, Essenza and Meditteraneo, and the Bratwurst hot dog stand on Portobello Road opposite The Electric, absolutely delicious after a long walk on a Saturday morning!
How do you plan to personally celebrate your 40 years in the business?
I am going to have a big party to celbrate 40 years in the business with great music, wonderful food, and friends, family , colleagues and celebrities that have been a memorable part of my life over the last 40 years! It is going to be the party of the year!!
Who has been your favourite or most memorable personalities to photograph?
I loved shooting Dennis Hopper, a good friend of mine. Sharon Stone is always fun and there's of course Elizabeth Taylor. Robert De Niro still gives me a thrill and Madonna always gives great shots. I can't name one personality, there are so many out there! I love them all!
What else do you have in store for 2014?
A collaboration with the jeweller Stephen Webster, an exhibition at The Playboy Club, a talk and exhibition at the Groucho Club, a lecture at the London College of Fashion and of course my big celebration party!
Pret-a-Photo is at the Richard Young Gallery, 4 Holland Street W8, until 28 February 2014; richardyounggallery.co.uk