Like many teenagers in Sydney in the 1980s, Richard Simpkin began waiting outside training grounds and stadiums to win the autographs of his favourite sports stars. Soon, he upgraded to record signings and famous musicians. But when a fellow autograph-hunter showed him a picture of her father posing with the late John Lennon, he decided that this might be a more fulfilling pursuit.
"Her dad wasn't famous," Simpkin explains on his website, "but there he was, sitting next to John Lennon, who was one of the most famous people in the world. He will always be remembered and he is a part of history. I was only 15 years old at the time, but that photo changed my life forever."
A few years later, as he flicked through the album of photographs he had collected – of himself, posing with celebrities – the young Australian realised that not only had he changed over the years, but that the nature of fame itself was changing. At the time, he had a job freelancing as a press photographer for a photo agency, and it had become embarrassing for him to track down celebrities and pap them professionally, only to then ask whether he might have his own picture taken with them. His boss told him he had to choose between the two occupations. "I'm on to something here," he thought. "It had changed from a simple fan thing into a project."
That project would see Simpkin standing next to some of the more historically significant figures of the late 20th century – Nelson Mandela, the Dalai Lama, Rupert Murdoch, Muhammad Ali – as well as some now-deceased icons of popular culture: Tony Curtis, Heath Ledger, Audrey Hepburn and Michael Jackson. He has snapped himself with more than 200 of the rich and famous over 23 years, and has had to employ increasingly elaborate methods in order to track down his subjects.
During that time, Simpkin has matured and perfected his blank-gazed camera face, against a backdrop of changing styles and half-remembered stars. As the armies of celebrity minders and public relations people have grown, so has Simpkin's challenge of gaining access to the celebrities themselves. His "project" became a book in 2007, but continues to this day – and his collection now forms the core of Richard & Famous, an exhibition of celebrity-themed photography opening this week at Liverpool's Open Eye photography gallery.
Exhibiting alongside Simpkin is Simone Lueck, a Los Angeles-based photographer whose portfolio, The Once And Future Queens, came about after she posted an advertisement on website Craigslist asking for older women who wanted to pose as their favourite film stars. The women who replied were invited to provide their own wardrobes, and to do their own hair and make-up for the subsequent shoot with Lueck. The resulting images, of middle-aged and elderly women acting out their fading-star fantasies – Brigitte Bardot, Marilyn Monroe, and so on – are by turns celebratory, satirical and sad.
The exhibition is curated by Martin Parr, one of the UK's leading photographers and an avid photobook collector. Of Lueck's work, he says: "We still have fantasies about celebrities, and these are very good examples of women who have a notion or fantasy of how they should look, often based on individual personalities. It's the perfect match with Richard's take on celebrity. It leaves interpretation wide open; there's a sense of ambiguity. There is some critique of celebrity, and some celebration."
Parr's own work has documented many aspects of British life and society, but he is about as far from a celebrity portraitist – let alone a paparazzo – as one could imagine. "I've never been a celebrity-driven person," he says. "I don't even know the names of film stars, really." Yet celebrity has always been at the heart of the photography business, and is integral to its history. As Parr points out: "You had celebrity paintings before you had celebrity photos."
Alongside Richard & Famous, Parr is also presenting his own collection of "painted" celebrity photographs from the post-war years, discarded by magazines and other publications of the period after being cropped or altered for publication. Parr picked them up in flea markets and second-hand shops, and they include images of such stars as Ali, Lennon and Monroe. "I like the idea of how these photos were manipulated before photoshop and the internet," Parr explains. "It's a wonderful analogue style. Many of the people featured in them are, naturally, celebrities."
Richard & Famous, Open Eye Gallery, Liverpool (0151 236 6768) Friday to 18 March