Celebrity-hunter turned photographer launches star-filled exhibition

'Richard and Famous' takes a critical look at the cult of celebrity.

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The Independent Culture

A man whose childhood obsession with celebrities turned into a life-long photography project, taking him all over the world, will have excerpts from his collection of over 1000 celebrity snapshots displayed in a gallery this week in an exhibition curated by the Magnum photographer Martin Parr.

The Open Eye Gallery, in Liverpool, will host the exhibition, entitled Richard and Famous, after the photographer Richard Simpkin's extensive collection of photos of himself posing with different celebrities. The collection spans three decades of celebrity culture, from 1989 to the present day.

The project has led Simpkin to travel across the world meeting celebrities and he even became an official band photographer along the way.

When Simpkin, who lives in Sydney, was just 15, he used to collect autographs until his friend showed him a picture of her father taken with John Lennon and Yoko Ono in Central Park in New York. "I saw the photo and I thought, ‘I want to get my photo taken with people that go down in history. I went out and bought a $90-camera and got started."

His first two photos were taken with Sammy Davis, Jr. and Boris Becker. "When I was a kid it was a great thrill to be close to celebrities. I would go down to a hotel in Sydney where all the famous people stayed. You could see Bon Jovi, Kylie Minogue – everyone. I'd take my photos to school and all the other kids would crowd round and be asking who's Richard met this week?"

Simpkin has since captured the images of celebrities from the worlds of music, film, sports and politics, from Audrey Hepburn to Michael Jackson, the Dalai Lama to Nelson Mandela.

At 16 he left school and became a photographer for Michael Hutchence, the Australian musician and lead singer-songwriter of rock band INXS, after a chance encounter hanging around his studio during the school summer holidays. "He's the most charismatic person I ever met. He took me under his wing and there I was doing photo shoots with him — this kid with a camera getting him to do all different poses...He helped me out. He'd say ‘Helmet Newton does it this way' or explain the importance of lighting."

Simpkin spent eight years touring with Hutchence and they remained friends until his death. "I had breakfast with him and his dad in 1997 and his dad wanted to get a photo with the two of us together. Two days' later I found out he had killed himself in a hotel, so the last photo of Michael Hutchins alive was with me."

500 images from Simpkin's total collection of over 1000 celebrity snaps will be on display at the gallery, including a selection from his time working with Hutchence and a video interview he made with the INXS singer.

Simpkin has lived in the US and London to in order to add to his collection and has even gone "under-cover" in search of a photo. "Michael Jackson came to town in and every person in Australia knew where he was staying, I knew I needed to outsmart them, so I put on a casual suit and took a briefcase with my laptop. Everyone else was screaming and crying outside the hotel, but I was undercover so to speak. I was playing it cool. I went up and waited and worked on my laptop in the hallway, and when Jackson emerged I walked calmly over and asked him for a photo."

Next year, the project will be in its 25th year, and Simpkin plans to "retire" from taking the photos. "You can meet the who's who, and of course it's a great challenge, but I'm disillusioned. I'm not obsessed with celebrity. When I was younger, the ones I idolised were the ones with genuine Hollywood glamour. Now it's plastic celebrities that will dissolve in the future."

Richard Simpkin's work will be on display alongside LA-based photographer Simone Lueck who posted an advert online, inviting older women to pose for her in the guise of their favourite film star. Running concurrently to the main exhibition, Open Eye Gallery also hosts the archive exhibition Painted Photographs, featuring celebrity photographs from the personal collection of the photographer Martin Parr, who has also curated the Richard and Famous exhibition.

Parr, who is known for turning a critical eye on modern culture, said of Simpkin's work "Obsessively having his photo taken with the celebrities of the world, [Simpkin] shows them almost to be puppets in his own game of charades. Knowing how difficult it is to get access to celebrities in this day and age, it is an awesome achievement, and turns his whole game into a compelling piece of art."

Richard and Famous is at the Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool, from 13 January to 18 March 2012.