The Open Eye has had a very impressive start to its new life underneath the black shards that now dominate Liverpool’s Pier Head. Two extremely strong exhibitions kicked things off back towards the end of 2011 and now Martin Parr has assembled three new shows that maintain that momentum.

Simone Lueck’s striking portraits of older women in a rather noirish idiom are rather beautiful in their own right, while the archive exhibition, Painted Photographs, is an intriguing display of a life before Photoshop and airbrushes; an insight into how to crop an image with scalpels, tippex and paint.

But it’s Richard and Famous – an exhibition of celeb snapper Richard Simpkin’s 1000-strong archive of images stretching back to 1989 that really catch the eye. It’s a simple concept: Simpkin has taken photos of himself with celebrities for over 20 years, from Boris Becker to Nelson Mandela – with Hulk Hogan, Mickey Rooney and Grace Jones along the way.

Simpkin’s life is plotted out over a period of years that also serves as a pop culture journal of some of the world’s biggest celebs of the era. In a way it’s the antithesis – or the antidote – to Tehching Hsieh’s One Year Performance 1980-1981 (Time Clock Piece), where the artist took a photo of himself once an hour, every day for a year.

That’s a fascinating exhibition in its own right and was shown at FACT last year, but Richard and Famous (a brilliantly punning title) is totally lacking in meaning. Because of that it’s even more fascinating.

It’s easy to relate to; it engages us and it can be digested on several levels: we identify with Simpkin; we are familiar with the celebrities and can place them within our own lives as people we are – on some level familiar with; and we recognise the passage of time that we see in ourselves ever day.

The pictures themselves are diverting in their own right; the reactions of celebs for whom it mist be a way of life starling in it’s mundanity. Occasionally a celebrity appears nonplussed or especially engaged by Simpkin’s appearance. The regular meetings with Michael Hutchence seem particularly warm – and the realisation that the INXS singer no longer appears in the timeline after the late 90s is a source of sadness.

As too are the photos that show people who are no longer with us. There’s Michael Jackson with a scarf around his face; his visage like that of a startled rabbit; another of Tony Curtis in the days of his outrageous wig; Roger Moore looking almost Bond-like in an early pic and a very old man in another, years later.

In another surreal turn of events, the genial Simpkin himself was attending the Open Eye launch and admitted to finding the slog of his celeb spotting tiring. After the transition to full-on art project, he says, it’s been difficult balancing the need for extending the project along with his day job and real life. He admits nowadays it’s becoming much harder, as the heavily PR’d, security-obsessed new celebs make it difficult for anyone to get close, let alone snap a photograph. Also, he admits, Simpkin just isn’t bothered about meeting celebrities anymore – but he wants to reach 25 years of the project. It’s why, after over half his life, he’s finishing up ‘Richard & Famous’ next year.

His appearance at the show lent another facet to the exhibition; the artist had left the photographs and was manifested in the room. Another viewer; another filter through which the images on the wall are passed. It may have been a strange experience for us; it was clearly water off a duck’s back for him.

Simpkin is as much a part of the viewer’s gaze as the celebs, his journey from adolescence into near middle-age plotted in all of its cheap-production Kodaked glory. He’s now scarcely recognisable from the young lad who initially approached Boris Becker for a memento.

24 years on, his unusual odyssey is a weird piece of bizarre, engaging, amusing and touching art. It’s an exhibition that, at first, entertains. But more than that it talks to us about our own lives, loves and – ultimately – our mortality.

Richard and Famous, Simone Lueck, Painted Photographs
Open Eye Gallery
Mann Island, Pier Head
13th January – 18th March

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