Interview: Richard Young

I want to snap real celebs not those wannabes


'Could we please postpone," calls in Richard Young, days before our interview. "I'll be in no fit state to meet then."

We were due to meet the morning after he launched his new book, Nightclubbing, which celebrates more than 40 years of snapping celebrities in their most unguarded moments. When images surfaced of him partying with Elizabeth Hurley and David Furnish at the central London launch, it's not surprising that he called for the delay.

"The party was like something out of Saturday Night Fever - I felt like a rock star bringing out his greatest hits," he laughs, saying he chose to focus on nightclubs because, "I spent all my early years in nightclubs - I just enjoy going to parties photographing people dancing. Instead of having a boring picture of someone with a champagne glass, photographing someone dancing tells you more about them."

Aged 67, he has built up an enviable reputation on the scene. An early assignment saw him gate-crash Richard Burton's 50th birthday party at the Dorchester Hotel in 1974, before being unceremoniously thrown out by a furious Elizabeth Taylor. "I remember, she came up to me with those eyes," he says. "She didn't want to make a scene but she said: 'I don't know who you are, but get out of here now.'" They later became "dear friends" - after she forgave him for the indiscretion.

Since then, Young has been granted unprecedented access to the most exclusive parties, snapping A-listers in shots that show how comfortable they are around the photographer whom Kate Moss famously calls "uncle Richard". As a result, Yoko Ono recently attended his gallery, and he signed a copy of his fourth book as a Christmas gift for Bono on the morning we met.

But even though he would describe himself as "Benjamin Button - getting younger by the day", he has struggled to understand the interest in images of reality TV stars stumbling out of nightclubs.

Over coffee across the road from his Kensington gallery, he says: "I do get told off by my agency. They say I should take more of an interest in that kind of celebrity but I'm really not interested at all.

"I'll give you my Sienna Miller, Keira Knightley - who I think are fabulous people; I'll give you my Naomi Campbell, who is divine; my Kate Moss, who is lovely; give me more and more of Cara Delevingne. These are girls who are out there working and creating something.

"If I have to hang outside a club, I want to see Princess Diana coming out, I want to see Prince Andrew with a girl on his arm, Jack Nicholson, Al Pacino - they're all meaningful, creative people. I don't want to photograph someone on The X Factor coming outside of a restaurant."

It's a glamorous world far from the Stoke Newington flat in which the father-of-three grew up with his mother Hilda and father David, a market trader who sold ladies stocking for 60 years. Young was, admittedly, rebellious. At the age of 14, he was expelled from the William Wordsworth secondary school for playing truant and getting caught taking the bus to Soho instead of attending his PE class.

Young had dabbled with the idea of becoming a singer - he used to perform at the Victoria Boys' Club in Stamford Hill. "My mother put a stop to that," he smiles. "I also wanted to be a drummer. I remember every Friday night, when we had the chicken and she lit the candles, I'd be sat on the settee playing the drums with her knitting-needles and biscuit tins. She soon put a stop to that as well. My music career came to an abrupt stop aged 12."

The year 1973 proved to be pivotal. Working in the Village Bookshop in Regent Street, he was sent out to take photographs for a book. He came back with three rolls of blank film. Shop owner Jeffrey Kwinter encouraged him to take up the camera again. And so, Nikon (still his camera of choice) in hand, he practised around the East End.

"At the time, my dad was calling me a good-for-nothing. He said: 'What are you going to do with your life, you schmo?'

"I remember standing behind his stall in Berwick Street Market and he said: 'This is all going to be yours one day.' I said: 'No, it's not.'

"When I got the camera thrust into my hand, I felt so sexy with this Nikon going around London, going around the East End, Petticoat Lane, Brick Lane on a Sunday morning.

"I got a picture of my dad that I took in a pub before Christmas lunch; he's sitting there in a trilby hat - he looked like Robert De Niro.

"I came into this whole business in a roundabout way, through the door that says 'no entry'. I never went to college, I never trained to be a photographer, I never went to journalistic school, I was never a staff photographer.

''No one would ever employ me, they thought I was kind of crazy, especially going out every night and staying up till 3am, hanging outside clubs to see famous people.

"That's the whole crux of it - they were famous, not like today."

His career took off after he snapped Paul Getty junior - the oil tycoon's grandson who had just been released from his kidnapping - walking through Hyde Park with his girlfriend. The exclusive shots were syndicated worldwide.

He believes that the family values he grew up with - "manners, politeness and a bit of chutzpah" - have accounted for his success.

At this point, Young, recalling his barmitzvah at Stoke Newington Synagogue, becomes emotional. "My whole life has been like two different worlds," he says. "I want to go back to my faith, to being a Jewish boy. I lost it. I don't know where it went. It dropped out of my pocket when I was 14. "I said to my dad: 'Where's it gone?' He said: 'Don't worry about it, it'll come back to you later in life.' I want to start becoming a member of a synagogue, maybe in the Holland Park area where I live. I just want to come back into being a proud Jewish person again, because that's what I am.

"I enjoy everything Jewish. When I was a kid, my mum used to feed me all this stuff - I was twice the size I am now. She used to say: 'Don't worry darling, you've just got big bones. Have another smoked-salmon bagel," he laughs, putting on an East End accent.

"I have never been to Israel. I want to go to Israel. I want to be a nice Jewish boy again. I want to be buried in a nice Jewish cemetery where my mum and dad are in Enfield. I want to go to Israel to lay tefillin, stand by the Wailing Wall and be forgiven."

Forgiven for what? "I want to be forgiven for neglecting it. I just wish I could stand with my dad again on Yom Kippur or Rosh Hashanah in the synagogue, and be a bit more tolerant and intelligent to understand that I missed a lot over the years. It's time to grow up."

And his Jewishness has, he believes, helped him bond with celebrities. He recalls attending an Amy Winehouse concert, after she was awarded five Grammy Awards in 2008.

"It was 4am and there's a massive table; chopped herring, chopped liver, smoked salmon, lots of bagels piled high. Her mother turns around to me and says: 'Richard, have another bagel'. Amy turns around and said: 'He doesn't want another bloody bagel, look at him.'"

Young (who refuses to take pictures with an iPhone) still hopes to take a photograph of the legendary Bob Dylan, born Robert Zimmerman: "He's a nice Jewish boy, we could always go to Katz on East Street and have a salt-beef sandwich and a latke.

"I wouldn't talk to him about his music - he's heard that a billion times. I would talk to him about his clothes. I want to find out who his tailor is."

Richard Young is a self-confessed shopping "addict" all because, he says, of "my schoolmate, Mark Feld - he became Marc Bolan from T Rex.

"His mum worked on the same market as my dad. He would come to school in handmade suits, shirts and shoes. I knew that this kid I sat next to at school for three years was going to be the biggest star.

"When he became a rock star and I was a photographer, we hooked up again and I started taking pictures of him as T Rex. I knew him up to the time he died."

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