Shooting star: Richard Young"s been the A-list"s favourite party snapper since the 70s – here he reveals why

Shooting star: Richard Young's been the A-list's favourite party snapper since the 70s – here he reveals why

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UPDATED:

21:30 GMT, 11 May 2012

Robert De Niro and Richard Young pictured in 2003

Robert De Niro and Richard Young pictured in 2003

The chances are, if there’s been a celebrity party in London over the past 40 years, Richard Young will have taken photographs there.

Supermodel Kate Moss, who calls him ‘Uncle Rich’, says, ‘If Richard’s not there it’s not really a party,’ while Elton John says of him, ‘If I’m at an event and I see Richard I think, “Thank God you’re here.”’

There are few celebrity photographers actually liked by celebrities, but Richard bucks the trend and the likes of Elton, Kate, David Walliams and Tracey Emin are queuing up to gush about him for a new four-part Sky Arts documentary series on his life.

‘I’m not the world’s best
photographer, I know that,’ he says. ‘So other photographers always ask
why it’s me who gets the call. It’s because the celebrities trust me.
I’m polite, I smile at them, and exchange a few kind words. You’d be
surprised what a difference that can make.’

Name
an iconic moment in British photography and the chances are Richard,
64, snapped it: from Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at his 50th
birthday party shortly after their second wedding, to the Versace
safety-pin dress that made Elizabeth Hurley famous. Not only did Richard
take their pictures, he also became their trusted photographer. When
George Harrison wanted a few new shots for the family album he called
Richard.

When David
Walliams married model Lara Stone, Richard was the official
photographer. And when the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge hosted a
private party with Steven Spielberg at Buckingham Palace after the
premier of War Horse, he was the only photographer invited. ‘I wasn’t
allowed to publish the photos, they were just for Disney and Royal use,
but who cares I was the one who got the call.’

Not bad for the son of a Jewish East End market trader whose family thought would never amount to anything. He was thrown out of school at 15 for truancy (along with Marc Bolan) and spent the next few years drifting from job to job. He had a brief sojourn in America – doing a ‘rock ’n’ roll and sex but not drugs’ road trip – and came back to Britain where he got a job working in a family friend’s bookshop.

The friend asked if he could take photos – he needed some pictures to illustrate some books about the West Country – and, lying through his teeth, Richard said yes, borrowed a Nikon camera and took three rolls of film. Not one of the pictures was usable. Luckily his friend gave Richard a second chance, and instructed him to learn how to use the camera. Six weeks later he had his first exclusive.

Shooting stars: Kate Moss with Jo Wood at Ronnie Wood's 50th

Shooting stars: Kate Moss with Jo Wood at Ronnie Wood's 50th

A neighbour of his turned out to be the European editor of Rolling Stone magazine; one day he invited Richard out to lunch and told him to bring his camera. John Paul Getty, grandson of the oil magnate, was coming to visit. John Paul had just been released from a Mafia kidnapping – his ear had been chopped off when his grandad refused to pay the ransom. Everyone wanted a look and Richard got the photos, which he sold to the Evening Standard for 30 – two weeks’ wages at the bookshop.

Commissions started rolling in. One evening he got a call asking him to try and get a photograph of Richard Burton’s 50th birthday party – the actor had just remarried Elizabeth Taylor. He managed to gatecrash the party at London’s Dorchester hotel by cosying up to the DJ, and when the giant birthday cake arrived, he started taking photographs.

I’m not the world’s best
photographer, I know that. So other photographers always ask
why it’s me who gets the call. It’s because the celebrities trust me.

‘All the family had their cameras out but every time I took a picture Elizabeth Taylor’s head popped up – she could tell my flash was a lot more powerful than the others,’ he recalls. ‘And then they took to the dance floor and kissed, so I went right up to them and took my picture, at which point she said, “Get out of here! Now!” I walked – I had my exclusive.’ Prints of those pictures are now worth 4,000.

A few days later he got a call from the Dorchester – first berating him, then asking for pictures to present to Elizabeth. He made them up in a big presentation box. ‘The next time I saw her she said, “Lovely pictures, thank you for sending them.” A few years ago when she came to London, her lawyer called me and asked me to take the photographs for the family lunch to celebrate her becoming a Dame. It all goes full circle.’

There are few stars Richard hasn’t shot; there have been his heroes, from Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama to Freddie Mercury – who became a friend and called Richard ‘Muriel’ – to the likes of Michael Jackson and Brad Pitt. He’s had breakfast with Jack Nicholson and lunch with Dennis Hopper. He loved them all. He was close to Princess Diana. She was one of the people, he admits, whose trust he bought by agreeing not to release pictures of them in compromising positions or with the wrong person. So is there any gossip he can spill now ‘No, those stories will go with me to my grave.’ If you like your gossip, Richard is a bit of a spoilsport.

His shots of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at Burton's 50th birthday party at London's Dorchester hotel

His shots of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at Burton's 50th birthday party at London's Dorchester hotel

ELTON JOHN AND SYLVESTER STALLONE

BRITT EKLAND, FREDDIE MERCURY, A FRIEND, RON WOOD AND JO WOOD

Behind-the-scenes access: Elton John with Sylvester Stallone (left) and (From front left) Britt Ekland, Freddie Mercury, an unnamed friend, and Ronnie and Jo Wood in 1978

He still loves the work but no longer knows all the names. ‘Celebrity in London is going through a weird time,’ he says. ‘A lot of our stars live in America, while the ones who’ve stayed here don’t go out so much. Everyone has a camera on their phones; it’s no wonder they want their privacy. So the parties have become all about reality stars. I find it difficult to bring myself to photograph them.’

He’s become friends, of sorts, with many of his prey but he admits there’s an ‘invisible line’ he won’t cross. ‘It can be tricky becoming personal friends; stars can drop you as quickly as they take you on. You’re not as important to them as you think you are. I’ve seen it happen to others – and I’ve seen how it hurts.’

There’s still a touch of the fan about him. ‘I can’t believe all the amazing people I’ve met,’ he says wistfully. He thinks celebrities like him simply because he’s still so down-to-earth, in a world which is anything but. ‘Some of them are so wrapped up in their fame, it gives them a sense of relief to have someone normal around them. I’m just a photographer, I’m not that important.’

Celebrity Exposed: The Photography Of Richard Young, Tuesday, 8pm, Sky Arts 1.