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The Daddy of Society Photographers

Richard Young earned enviable access to rock's aristocracy for 40 years by charming them into submission. Rob Sharp reports

For four decades, the society photographer Richard Young has followed rock's aristocracy.

Although he lit a trail for today's sharp-elbowed modern paparazzi, his mode has always been gentler, relying more on charm and luck.

Young's subjects have consistently exhibited an innocence of expression seldom seen in today's publicity-hungry world, whether it was Elton John cavorting with two Beatles backstage at the Royal Albert Hall, Andy Warhol loitering at The Factory in New York or Robert De Niro relaxing with Martin Scorsese at an awards ceremony. Starting Monday, a selection of new photographs from his personal archives will be exhibited at his West London gallery.

"In the early days I was always very lucky," Young said. "It had to do with charm and being nice to people. I always got the access I required or requested, always in the nicest possible way."

Young developed a knack for inveigling his way past the velvet rope. "In my mind it is all about respect," Young said. "It is not just taking pictures. It is about demeanour. If you want to take pictures in a restaurant then at least have the courtesy to dine in there. Dress appropriately, be friendly, make sense of the situation, show respect for what other people are trying to achieve."

Young's first foray into photography came in 1974, when his workappeared in a book written by the Welsh author John Cooper Powys. After a chance encounter in a friend's house the same year, the philanthropist John Paul Getty III invited Young to take pictures of him and his then-girlfriend, an artist called Martine, around London. The pictures won Young a freelance photographer role at the Evening Standard. His heroes were Annie Leibovitz – "I'd always admired her work in Rolling Stone" – and the music photographer Jim Marshall – "he enjoyed unlimited access to musicians like Jimi Hendrix and Johnny Cash". Young added: "I also quite liked Linda McCartney; she had done some great work with West Coast bands like the Grateful Dead."

He next worked for the gossip magazine Ritz, founded by fellow photographers David Bailey and David Litchfield in 1976. The magazine pioneered the celebrity gossip magazines of today.

"Working with Bailey was amazing," Young said. "It gave me carte blanche to get access to everyone and we got invited to everything. We went to Studio 54 in New York, met Andy Warhol, spent a lot of time at The Factory. We liked to think of ourselves as the British equivalent of New York's Interview magazine – the first real gossip magazine, very elite, very fashion, very good with the art crowd."

In addition to owning a gallery, Young exhibits work across the capital and continues to fill the pages of newspapers and glossy magazines.

He has to work with modern paparazzi but rejects their methods: "They are more aggressive people. It's taken me 38 years to get to know everyone and earn their trust. I don't need to prove anything to anyone. I don't need to push any buttons. The funny thing was, because I was the only paparazzo working at the time... it got quite lonely. But we did clean up. The first six years were fantastic."

Young continues to attend the capital's most glittering events – and is as reliant on serendipity as he ever was. "Earlier this week I was attending a launch for the fashion magazine ID," he said. "And it was just me and another photographer there. And, as it happened, the perfect opportunity arose: Patsy Kensit kissing Kylie's hand. Some things change. Some things stay the same."

His exhibition, Pret-a-Photo, runs until January at The Richard Young Gallery, 4 Holland Street, Kensington.