Richard Simpkin is no ordinary Heat magazine-reading celeb fan. You won’t catch him casually flicking through the pages of New! magazine to read about personality-free horror vacuum Paris Hilton or feverishly following Colleen Rooney’s Twitter account. Instead, you’ll find this dedicated Australian waiting patiently outside the world’s hotels, TV studios and swankiest clubs for a photograph with the globe’s biggest stars.
Simpkin started this hobby back in the 80s as a teenager, first becoming an autograph hunter and then gradually asking celebrities for snaps. It’s since escalated into a massive gotta-catch-’em-all art project, now in its third decade. Highlights from his vast image collection are being exhibited at the Open Eye gallery this month alongside Simone Lueck’s movie star recreations (more on that one next week): both different and fascinating commentaries on the way society understands and responds to celebrity culture.
The scale of Simpkins’ project – up until now, essentially a life’s work – is huge and overwhelmingly impressive, stretching into the thousands, and we had a chat with Richard prior to the show’s launch.
We’re excited for your forthcoming show. How does it feel to be exhibiting these images to the public in a gallery setting?
It’s very exciting. The exhibition was first shown in 2008 at the Australian Centre for Photography, here in Sydney where I live. It got a great response – in just 26 days over 4500 people went and viewed the exhibition. From then, it travelled to Lithuania, where the photographer Martin Parr saw it. He then decided to bring it to the Open Eye Gallery in Liverpool this month.
How open – or selective – were you with which images would be shown?
I tried to make the show as diverse and wide-ranging as I could. If, for example, a grandmother took her grandson to view the exhibition, they could both enjoy it. There’s different generations of celebrities within the show: the grandmother could enjoy the photos of people like Audrey Hepburn and Gregory Peck, and her grandson could recognise the younger stars like Taylor Swift, the cast of Glee or Kim Kardashian.
Who was the first celebrity you took a picture with, that kicked all this off?
I used to go to a lot of signings in record stores, so I had met celebrities before, but the first real international celebrity that I got my photo taken with was Sammy Davis Jr in 1989.
Are you picky about who you take pictures with? Do you see it almost like a curating aspect of the project?
Yes, I am very picky. What’s the point in waiting hours, or even days, for someone who’s famous now but won’t be next week? I call many of today’s ‘celebrities’ disposable. They’re the plastic celebrities who will dissolve in the future.
In a funny twist, ‘Richard & Famous’ has actually brought you a certain amount of celebrity, in the art world at least. How does it feel to be interviewed, recognised, and talked about?
It’s a great thrill for the exhibition to gain a lot of attention from the media and the people that come and see it. I guess I’m the face of the exhibition, and I’m in every picture, so I do have to promote it in the media. By doing so I sometimes get recognised and people talk about me and the show. Every artist wants people to talk about their work, and I’m really very lucky that my project has gained this amount of attention.
It’s interesting to see the progression in the pictures from when you were a child to growing up. Did you notice a changing in the reactions of the celebrities themselves when you asked them for a picture?
Yes, absolutely. When I first started I looked like I was about 12, and most celebrities didn’t have a problem with posing with a child. Plus, their security generally let me get close to them, so I had a good chance of asking that person for the photo. You might say my youthful appearance granted me greater access to these celebs. But, as I got older and didn’t look as innocent, it did get a little harder to be honest. In the late 80s to early 90s there was a real innocence regarding fans and celebrities, almost like there was an unspoken obligation that the star had towards their fans. There was a noticeable change during the mid 90s. The whole thing became a lot more professional, slick and organised, so it’s very difficult to get a photo with celebs nowadays.
Are there any real extremes you’ve gone to to secure a picture with someone?
I wouldn’t say any of this is extreme to me. It’s more of a patience game, with a bit of luck thrown in. You could wait for someone at their hotel for five hours, go to the toilet for a moment and you miss them. Other times you arrive at the hotel and see the celeb walking around the lobby. It’s actually very interesting. You get to understand human behaviour. And with a bit of perseverance, and a bit of luck, you can meet almost anybody.
Is there anyone in particular who’s still on the ‘to do’ list to be snapped with?
Paul McCartney, JK Rowling, Bobby Charlton and Madonna.
This hobby-slash-art project has taken up most of your life. How long are you planning on continuing it?
Next year is my last year working on this particular project. I’ve been working on it for 24 consecutive years, and by next year it will be 25. I think that’s long enough to work on one project. I’ve been documenting my life in photos now for all these years and I hope that the people who come and see the show get as much enjoyment from it as I’ve had making it.
Richard & Famous
Open Eye Gallery, Mann Island, Liverpool
13th January – 18th March
– All images © Richard Simpkin