Unveiled: Celebrity Photos of a Lifetime

The photographs are similar to what you would find in a well-worn shoebox at the bottom of your mother's closet — worn, simple, straightforward.

But they're photographs with a difference. American Gary Lee Boas, widely described in the press as a geek, dedicated the better part of 15 years of his life to taking them.

He amassed a collection of more than 50,000 celebrity pictures and is now being given attention in the art world. His work can currently be seen in an exhibit, "Gary Lee Boas: Starstruck" at London's Photographers' Gallery.

His work has also been published in a book, also called Starstruck. The group of celebrities is a democratic and diverse one — Katherine Hepburn, Mohammed Ali, Lucille Ball, Henry Kissinger, Bianca Jagger, and several Miss Americas can be found among the images he has amassed.

Just Like Ordinary People

The pictures are impromptu and often catch celebrities at their most genuine. Without the time to pose and primp, celebrities greet the camera in a brief, untouched moment where they often look anything but famous.

In fact, they often look just like "ordinary people" — their poses, expressions, and what they are doing in these pictures are not at all different from what you would see if they had indeed been found in a family shoebox of pictures.

Shirley MacLaine laughs to herself; a side profile of Sophia Loren shows her gazing fondly at someone off-camera; Louis Armstrong enjoys a quiet cigarette; Elizabeth Taylor calmly watches the outside world from the window of her limousine.

These photos do not evoke or imitate Herb Ritts, Annie Leibowitz or other well-known and critically acclaimed celebrity chroniclers.

However, many have noticed that his pictures do have a certain charm to them. "Technical finesse isn't really a consideration: he took most of the shots on his Box Brownie," noted Britain's The Independent. "There is an unquestionable magic about the pictures, founded not only on the days, weeks and hours they took to amass, but the era that they map out."

An Era Over but Not Forgotten

The pictures encapsulate an era from 1966 to 1980. The sometimes grainy pictures capture the fashions, hairstyles and poses of the rich and famous over almost 30 years.

For younger viewers of the exhibit, it is a chance to see some favorites before they were so famous. Candice Bergen, pre-Murphy Brown, is caught at a cocktail party; a young Jack Nicholson puts on a scarf.

Boas catches all the major players in Saturday Night Live over the years — Gilda Radner, Steve Martin, and Chevy Chase — when they were transformed from unknowns to major stars.

The exhibition also displays some of the top popular music acts of the era including The Village People and Davy Jones from The Monkees.

It also offers a reminder of those who have since passed away — John Belushi, John Wayne, Grace Kelly, and George Burns — caught when they were very much alive.

"For some visitors it has provoked a nostalgic and emotional response," said Camilla Jackson, curator of the exhibit.

Welcomed by His Celebrity Subjects

Boas' work ends in 1980, the year Beatle John Lennon was shot by an obsessed fan. What Watergate did for the press and politics, this assassination may have done for celebrities and their fans.

Before this, celebrities were much more comfortable with fans approaching them — and there was not always an overwhelming gang of bodyguards to block their way.

"I'm so glad I got to experience the legends, and people who were willing to share their lives with you and … it was a time that will never be again," said Boas. "There aren't stars made anymore, they're created by their own persona and sometimes they're so off-whack of what [they're] really about."

The Name Game

By hanging out at stage doors, in parking lots, he captured celebrities at their most informal and impromptu moments.

Many he did not intend to shoot on purpose — if they were famous or just appeared to be famous to him, he wanted them.

"Gary's work is the work of an enthusiastic amateur," said Jackson. "His one-shot wonders, catching celebrities on the hoof, ties into our contemporary predilection for authenticity and veracity — without entering into the intrusive domain of the tabloid press."

His instincts almost always proved right.

"Everybody's always bordering stardom," said Boas. "I think it is every child's dream, when you see something more glamorous than your everyday life, you want to be a movie star, you want to be an athlete, you want to be Miss America."

He said he did not consider his photographs art — he considered taking them to be just a hobby.

A Hobby Catches the Public's Eye

But after spending hundreds of hours during his life on this hobby, he slowly came to the attention of celebrities and the press.

With several celebrities, he even forged close friendships. The exhibit in London has various letters, postcards, and autographs on display. The warmth in some of the letters is striking.

"I'm so terribly sorry that I didn't get to see you when I was last in New York," wrote Goldie Hawn in one note. "I am very glad that our lives have touched," said Betty Buckley in another.

Now, after years of snapping and even befriending celebrities, some of their celebrity has rubbed off on him. The exhibit runs through May 26.