It’s not about being the world’s greatest photographer, which I’m not. It’s about your personality
Celebrity photographer Richard Young has walked more red carpets than most A-listers. He tells Keith Wilson how it all began with a borrowed Nikon…
Wichard Young starts his day at 6.30pm, but he isn’t complaining. After nightfall the A-list celebrities come out to play, and it is at red carpet premieres and after-show parties that Richard finds his pictures. He may now be as recognisable as his stellar subjects, but Richard knows better than anyone that his early success was down more to luck than skill…
So 40 years ago you picked up a Nikon…
The funny thing is, I never picked it up. I was working in a bookshop in Regent Street, the Village Bookshop, and the owner Jeffrey Kwinter asked me to take some photographs for a book he wanted to illustrate. He asked me if I knew anything about cameras. So I lied and said, ‘I know everything about photography’, not knowing anything at all! He threw into my hands a Nikon FTn Photomic camera with a 35mm lens and sent me off to the West Country to photograph the country of Thomas Hardy. He gave me three rolls of black and white film, Tri-X, and said: “Let’s see what you can do with that!”
So how did it go?
I got back to London, processed the film, and there wasn’t one image that came out! I didn’t know anything about photography.
Was it a complete failure?
Mr Kwinter was quite disappointed, but being the kind of person he was, he let me keep the camera on permanent loan and told me to go out and teach myself how to use it. So I did, with the help of various camera stores around the West End. I’d go in and ask questions like, ‘What does aperture mean? What is ASA?’ The time from when it all went wrong to learning how to use a camera was about six weeks, and that’s when I got my first world exclusive.
What was the photo?
It was a picture of Paul Getty, 16 years old. He had just been released by the Mafia in Italy after being kidnapped. He had his ear chopped off, and his grandfather, John Paul Getty, paid a £2 million ransom. He came to London to spend the weekend with some friends about three doors down from where
I lived. They were my friends and asked if I wanted to have lunch on this particular Saturday, in July 1974, and told me to bring my camera. I took pictures of Paul Getty, they got published in the Evening Standard, and after that the Standard would ring me two or three times a week and ask if I would do a job for them in the evening.
Did all that change when you photographed Taylor and Burton?
One night in November 1975 the Standard asked me to photograph Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton at The Dorchester hotel for Burton’s 50th birthday party. I got to the Dorchester and everyone was being ushered into the foyer, so I followed this PR girl through some doors and ended up in a room set up for a party that hadn’t started yet. The only person in the room was the DJ, setting up his equipment. I went and squared up to him and said, ‘Don’t split on me please mate. I won’t spoil the party.’ He said, ‘Fine, let me teach you how to use the turntable!’ So now I’m the assistant DJ and I’m helping him.
What happened next?
Well, everyone comes in for dinner, they sit down, they have dinner. I didn’t take any pictures until the cake came in. Burton and Taylor then got up in the middle of the
dance floor and blew out the candles – kiss, kiss, kiss – by which time I’m taking all these pictures. Every time my flash went off, she looked up. Eventually Burton and Taylor hit the dance floor. I went and photographed them really close-up. She then went up to me, and her nose nearly touched mine, and she said, “I think you’d better leave. Now!”
Yet you remained on good terms with Taylor. Do you make friends with most celebrities you photograph?
It was always my belief that, if I was going to do this job, there was no need to be on bad terms with anyone. I want to be friends with everybody. Not everyone is going to like you, but I believe you should always have a good attitude towards the job and
to make friends and talk to these people. Once you show them they can trust you, you can’t fail to be on a winner. I remained on very good terms with Elizabeth Taylor right up until she passed away. We became friends. All those early pictures of Paul Getty and Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were taken on the Nikon FTn camera, which didn’t actually belong to me!
Have you still got it?
No. I gave it back to Mr Kwinter. The same week I did the Elizabeth Taylor pictures I resigned from the bookshop. I knew my life was going to be different after that. I was going to be a photographer. Now I realise that was the breakthrough shot that made the world aware there was this photographer called Richard Young. That was an important moment in my life.
Have you always been freelance, or have you been employed by a newspaper?
I’ve never been employed full-time by a newspaper in the 40 years I’ve been doing this. I have been on retainers with publications, based on ‘let us have the first look’. Even from the first photos with the
Evening Standard, they have always put me on a retainer, which meant if they didn’t need the shots I could give them to anybody else who wanted them. I had the same arrangement with the Daily Express, which lasted a long time. The newspaper never made me a staff photographer because I was too much of a free spirit to be locked down.
How does it feel when a celebrity you have got to know well passes away?
I think the saddest one was Queen singer Freddie Mercury, who I worked with for about 10 years. I went to all of his shows, all of Freddie’s birthday parties. That was very sad. Another sad one was Beatle George Harrison, who I was really friendly with. I used to get invited down to his home to take pictures of his friends and family. I’d have to pinch myself on the arm and say that was George Harrison on the phone inviting me down to his house. Why? Why me?
Good question, why you?
It’s not about being the world’s greatest photographer, which certainly I’m not. It goes back to being about your personality and how you are with all these people. We did a lot of work with Nelson Mandela over the years, especially for his charity, 46664, his prison cell number. We did a lot of work in Johannesburg and Cape Town on all the concerts and became very close to Mandela. I had some great times with all of these people, on a more personal level than most people would have in a lifetime. Especially Mandela, Freddie Mercury and George Harrison. They were all very special to me. They want you to be close to them because it brings a bit of normality to their lives.
What other Nikons have you used?
The FTn was like a tank, it was a very heavy camera and I used either a 50mm or a 35mm lens, particularly the 35mm. For
I’ve never been employed full-time by a newspaper or magazine in the 40 years I’ve been doing this
Richard Young Celebrity photographer
All those pictures of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton were taken on a Nikon FTn camera, which didn’t actually belong to me!
Richard Young Celebrity photographer
parties or photographing famous people coming out of restaurants, the 35mm was the best lens. It meant you could keep a safe distance from people without agitating anybody, whereas with a 24mm or 28mm you’d have to move in a lot closer to get what you need. After the FTn, it was FM cameras, then I used the F2. Then came the big F3. That was a game changer. And autofocus came in with the F4.
What’s your desert island lens?
It’s the Nikkor 24-120mm f/4 zoom. It covers the whole span of my life. When I go somewhere I’ll also take my 80-200mm f/2.8, but the 24-120mm is the one that’s attached to my D4 downstairs now and will come with me tonight, along with the Nikon SB-910 flash.
When did you make the switch to using digital cameras?
With the Nikon D1 – I’ve still got two or three. I went full pelt into digital photography. The Daily Express gave me a primitive Apple computer in 1991 and a scanner. I took it home in a big case and showed it to my wife, and she said, “Oh, it will never catch on!” The rest is history.
Do you still remind her of that quote?
Yeah, I do, and she went out and bought herself a nice iPad the other week.
When did you first use a digital camera?
Around 1999 Nikon threw the combination of a Nikon body with a Kodak bottom at me, which was the first primitive digital camera. It didn’t have a screen on it, so as with film you didn’t know what you were getting. Then this other body came out which had a little screen on the back and the biggest image you could have was a 5Mb picture. We used that for a while, but now we really can’t do very much with them because the file size is so small.
Were you using both film and digital, or did you switch over entirely?
I didn’t switch over entirely at all, it was too dangerous! In the year 2000, I was sent to Los Angeles to cover the Oscars. It was my first year of doing the Vanity Fair Oscar night parties. When I checked into the hotel, I went to this one-hour processing place and made a deal with the guy to come in at 2am to process all the film for me, put it through the scanner, onto my computer and use a phone line in my hotel to send the pictures back to London. I wouldn’t recommend it. I got back to the hotel at 5am to scan maybe 20 pictures to send back to London. At 3pm I’m still trying to do it because using a phone line meant there were all these interruptions in the switchboard, which meant I had to start the process all over again. The phone bill was $7000!
BEatlemania Ringo Starr, Elton John and George Harrison, London, 1987
Clockwise from left David Bowie with Nikon compact camera at Dingwalls nightclub in 1984; Debbie Harry on stage in Hammersmith in 1980; and a relaxed Marvin Gaye from 1976
Clockwise from bottom left
Paula Yates and Steve Strange from 1982; The Queen and Joan Collins at the Royal Albert Hall in 1982; Ronnie Wood and Rod Stewart in 2012; Bruce Springsteen performs in Hammersmith, 1975; Keith Richards in the Cobden Club from 1993; Jerry Hall and Mick Jagger from 1987; Sophia Loren in 1982; and Marie Helvin, Jerry Hall and Grace Jones in 1985
Rihanna and Cheryl Cole in London, 2011
Clockwise from far left
Elizabeth Taylor orders two of something in Belgravia, 1975; The Spice Girls perform in London in 1997; Brad Pitt poses for photographers on a red carpet outside the BAFTA s in 2012; Grace Jones on stage at a Vogue pop-up club, London, 2013; Yasmin Le Bon and her dog from 2013; Kate Moss gets made-up backstage in 1993; and Freddie Mercury and friend at his birthday party in Munich, 1985