If you believe Richard Young’s account of his own career, he is one of the luckiest photographers around. He tells of how he was working in a bookshop, dabbling in photography, when he obtained a world exclusive by accident.
True, he did have this one incredible stroke of luck in his career — of which more later — but it takes only a quick look of some of the iconic shots that Young has taken in his near 40-year career in photography to realise that he is a very talented as well as a very modest man.
Now 65, Young describes himself as “the oldest bohemian, hippy photographer in the world”. He has taken photos of the world’s most famous people, from Fidel Castro to Bob Dylan, Nelson Mandela to Madonna. However, back in the early 1970s, he was drifting. His boyhood love of music had persuaded him to try his luck as a sound engineer. He got as far as working in Jimi Hendrix’s studio in New York but eventually lost his job.
”I wasn’t very good and I wasn’t paying attention,” he says. “I was trying to live on pennies while living the rock ’n’ roll lifestyle and spending too much time doing the wrong things.”
Meanwhile, he was developing an interest in cameras, largely due to the influence of his then girlfriend, who was an avant garde photographer. But his career was nearly finished almost before it had started. While working in a London bookshop he was told by his boss to go to Dorset to take some photos of Thomas Hardy country to illustrate a book.
Young recalls with horror: “I took three rolls of black-and-white film. I lied through my teeth about knowing everything about photography and when I got back not one image came out. My boss wasn’t very happy, but being the Zen master he was, he gave me a camera and told me to go out and teach myself how to use it. So for the next few months, I went into stores, asking how things worked, and roamed around London taking pictures.”
All of which meant that Young could take a decent picture when a few months later, he bumped into one of his neighbours in Holland Park, west London.
“I was living in a bedsit and next door to me were these six journalists. I got friendly with one of the, a man called Craig Peters, who was London correspondent of Rolling Stone magazine. Over a bottle of rouge at a local wine bar he told me that I should be a photographer — that I had the right attitude for it.
"The following Saturday he said: ‘Look, I have some friends staying with me. They’ve come over from Rome — the kid has just been released by the mafia and the grandfather has paid a $2 million ransom’.”
That kid was Paul Getty junior — grandson of oil tycoon Jean Paul Getty — who had been kidnapped and who had no one had managed to photograph since his release. Young had stumbled across a world exclusive. He recalls: “I photographed him as we walked through Hyde Park with his girlfriend.”
He sold the photos to the Evening Standard and they were syndicated worldwide. Young was still working in the bookshop, but two to three times a week he would be called by the Standard to do celebrity jobs. One evening he was told to go to the Dorchester where Liz Taylor was throwing a 50th birthday party for Richard Burton. He did not have an invitation but says he managed to “schmooze his way in”.
“I got away with that one on the night and got my second world exclusive in 18 months.” The following day he left his job at the bookshop.
If the Getty photo was luck, then the Taylor and Burton one was down to his “chutzpah”. The ability to make friends of his subjects is one of the factors which he feels has propelled him in his career — that, and the persistence which he learned as a Jewish child growing up in Stamford Hill.
“My dad always taught me that as long as you’re polite to people and show good manners, the world will open up to you, but if there’s a door open, you need to go through it because you never know what’s on the other side.” This was advice he took literally at the Dorchester that evening.
Young thinks his unorthodox approach to his art has helped him to stand out. He says: “There’s this thing I do which is to photograph people from behind. At fashion shows and photocalls there will be loads of photographers at the front so I go around the back and get the subject to turn around and look at me. The background becomes this vast bank of photographers — it gives you a different perspective.
"There’s a lovely picture of Scary Spice on the catwalk at the Roundhouse. It’s taken from behind but we know it’s her because of her hair and the whole attitude of her body. What I was interested in was the sheer excitement and the energy — that’s what I look for in pictures.”
Above all, Young, who remains as busy as ever, maintains that if you are to be a successful photographer you need to leave your ego at home. “I know a lot of celebrities. But they sit on one side of the table and I’m on the other with my cameras. I never encroach upon their lives, unless they invite me to sit with them and have a drink. Ego is the biggest destructive element.
“After all, it’s not all about me. I’m just the photographer, man.”