Published in Sorbet Magazine, Issue 4 (May 2014)
They’ve been called creeps, stalkers and murderers of privacy, yet the paparazzi have always had their way with the stars. A look at their origins reveals some surprising facts and documents how these celebrity-chasing photographers have changed with the times.
When Italian filmmaker Federico Fellini named a character ‘Paparazzo’ in his iconic filmLa Dolce Vita(released 1960), he could not have predicted that it would enter the official English lexicon as a common noun. Today, the global currency of that word (plural: paparazzi) is used to describe intrusive, offending photographers, often accused of voyeurism and stalking.
Fellini’s Paparazzo was inspired by a real-life Italian photographer, Tazio Secchiaroli, who was famous in the ‘50s, for capturing popular actresses red-handed with their paramours, celebrities in the middle of domestic quarrels and several ‘candid’ shots of actors caught unawares. When Fellini met Secchiaroli in Via Veneto, he was shocked to learn some of the photographer’s trade secrets. Secchiaroli had confessed that while ‘watching’ and stalking celebrities day and night was the norm, he even went so far as to puncture the tires of celebrities’ cars in order to trap them for a shot. These ‘caught in the moment’ images could fetch upto six million Italian Liras (US$ 3000) for photographers like Secchiaroli at the time.
Fellini later explainedthat the name of this photographer’s character was derived from the Italian word papatacci, which loosely translates to ‘large mosquito’ and razzo, which means ‘light’. In the film, Paparazzo’s character traveled on his scooter or in his Fiat 500, which enabled him to navigate the streets of Rome with the agility of a mosquito, in his mission to chase and capture his quarry with his 1950s’ style, flashbulb camera.
Cut to a decade later, from 1960s celebrity-obsessed Rome to 1970s Hollywood, when paparazzi mania was at its height and the phenomenon of weekly tabloids had just begun to surface. From the public’s fascination with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, former First Lady of the United States, to the adulation surrounding actress Elizabeth Taylor, one paparazzo, Ron Galella, captured it all.
The Italian-American photographer, dubbed ‘Paparazzo Extraordinaire’ by Newsweek and ‘The Godfather of US paparazzi culture’ by Time and Vanity Fair respectively, did not stop at anything to get the perfect shot. As the subject of the documentary Smash His Camera, not even a restraining order from the court, demanding that he stay 164 feet away from Jackie O and her family, or a broken jaw, courtesy of an angry Marlon Brando or jail time in Mexico could keep him from the task at hand.
Job hazards also included long and agonizing waiting periods, just to get the perfect shot. “Once, I was locked alone in a warehouse in London, from Friday, 4pm to Monday, 9am,” he tells Sorbet. “I had to wait for a wedding party to capture Bob Wilson, a former Scotland football player. Another time, I paid a steward to lock me in for the weekend at The London warehouse on the Thames, so I could shoot Liz Taylor and Richard Burton on their yacht, the Kalizma. My favorite hiding places, however, were just trees – I used trees as cover to photograph Jackie and John Jr. in Central Park, for example.”
Today, some of 83-year-old Galella’s work has travelled to galleries across the world, such as Tate Modern in London and the Helmut Newton Foundation Museum of Photography in Berlin. His most famous ‘Windblown Jackie’ portrait is housed at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, although the story behind it is a far cry from his current celebrity status.“I hid in the backseat of a taxi to capture my Windblown Jackie,” he says. “The driver honked and she turned, giving me that Mona Lisa smile. She didn’t know it was me because the camera was covering my face, but when I got out of the taxi, she recognized me and immediately put on her big sunglasses. She asked, ‘Are you pleased with yourself?’ I cheekily said, ‘Yes, thank you,’ and left.”
In fact, Galella had longstanding trouble with Jackie O. “One significant event gave the documentary about me its name,” he says. On 24 September 1969, I was shooting Jackie and John Jr. bicycling in Central Park, when she spotted me and told her secret service agent, “Mr. Connelly, SMASH HIS CAMERA!” Fortunately he didn’t, but then two other secret service agents demanded my film on Jackie’s order. I did not surrender the film, and I was arrested for harassment. The charges were dismissed by the judge. I had won, but Jackie refused to pay my legal fees. That was the beginning of what would later turn into the 26-day trial I faced in 1972. I lost that case, but I won a lot of publicity, which money couldn’t buy. I thanked Jackie for the publicity in 1974, when I gave her a copy of my first book, Jacqueline. She kept that book in her library until she died, and as I understand, it was donated along with many of the photos from both our trials to the JFK Library in Boston.”
In a career spanning three decades, Galella continued to photograph celebrities at their best and worst. After the Marlon Brandon broken jaw incident, he followed him with a football helmet for protection and continued to chase Burton, even after being seriously beaten up by his bodyguards. Later in the 80s and 90s, he snapped celebrities such as John Travolta, Michael Jackson and Mick Jagger.
This drive and ambition, however, was more of a survival instinct, according to Galella, a job he took up in 1958 upon graduating from Art Center College in Hollywood, when he could not afford a studio in Manhattan. “I was forced to shoot on the street at premieres, Broadway openings, Studio 54, etc., and develop my film in my darkroom in the Bronx,” he explains.
“Throughout my career, I was able to offer more realistic, truthful pictures of celebrities rather than the posed pictures that studio photographers like Avedon produced, which were more commercial as opposed to editorial. However, the photographers in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita were fairly negative since they ganged up on stars and provoked them to get more sellable shots. They were actually very much like the photographers of today, especially those in L.A.”
Today, celebrities and Hollywood starlets have also learnt to use the paparazzi as a PR vehicle, an exercise in self-promotion. However, these set-up paparazzi shots do not fetch more than a $75 each, while genuine pictures of certain celebrities are extremely lucrative, and can bring in millions of dollars for the paparazzo. The quality of paparazzi pictures may have been reduced to horrifying crotch shots of desperate Hollywood starlets seen stepping out of cars, and vintage flashbulb cameras may have been replaced by sophisticated super-zoom digital cameras, but the spirit of paparazzi remains unchanged. The ghost of Fellini’s Paparazzo perhaps still lurks behind trees and in the backseat of cars, for that perfectly incriminating shot of the Next Big Thing.