Ron Galella: Paparazzo Extraordinaire!
In our contemporary culture, the term paparazzi has almost universally negative connotations, evoking an image of throngs of men aggressively wielding cameras like weapons. The commodification and cult of celebrity has never been greater than it is today and these photographers risk life, limb and lawsuits in a never-ending search for the money shot that will make them rich. Ron Galella, dubbed the “Godfather” of American paparazzi culture by Time magazine, is widely believed to be the progenitor of this trend, although a recently published monograph, Ron Galella: Paparazzo Extraordinaire!, makes clear that his intent, and commitment to aesthetics and composition, distinguish him from our current crop of celebrity photographers.
The publication includes all of Galella’s most iconic images and is organized thematically by subject, with chapters that group performers, artists, musicians, and nobility. Many images are annotated with Galella’s own description of the scene or encounter, and in some cases are accompanied by the gossip column beside which they were originally published. The book also includes a number of preliminary photos with pre-print corrections scribbled over the subjects, allowing the reader to witness Galella’s process and the care that he took to refine his composition. Throughout his extensive career, Galella perfected what he deemed “the art of paparazzi,” the ability to swoop in and capture the subject, in focus, before he or she had the opportunity to protest, at which point Galella would heed the request for no pictures.
Despite the obvious ethical implication that many of these images were taken against their subjects’ wishes and often vocal protestations, there is an element of glamour and reverence in the photographs that is very much lacking from today’s pictures of the starlette de jour passing out in the back of an SUV. Even an image of a very young Sean Penn taking a swing at one of Galella’s assistants, which is reproduced as the cover of the book, reads more like a film still than an unflattering and potentially incriminating celebrity portrait. While Galella’s purported intent was to strip celebrities of their intrigue and glamour and show them removed from their pedestal in everyday situations, his pictures retain a sense of opulence and style which explains why many of his images have become so iconic. A snarling, youthful Mick Jagger beside a smiling Jerry Hall, a smirking Andy Warhol photographing his photographers, Jackie Onassis and John F. Kennedy Jr. cycling in Central Park are all images that have been reproduced countless times and immediately come to mind when you think of these celebrities. His photographs that depict disco era glam – especially those of Grace Jones – are our personal favourites as Galella’s probing lens captures the essence of this hedonistic cultural moment.
Galella admittedly made a name for himself in a very different era, one before the internet made our appetite for mundane celebrity photos seemingly infinite, and before camera phones gave every individual the capacity to become an amateur paparazzo should they so desire. Unlike today’s paparazzi, Galella signed each of his images and parlayed his paparazzi photos into a lucrative career as a photographer for such mainstream outlets as Rolling Stone, Vogue, and Vanity Fair. While his tactics may seem genteel and civilized to our contemporary eyes, Galella was the subject of considerable controversy in his day and was the recipient of both lawsuits, including one with Jackie Onassis, and physical violence, Marlon Brando clocked him in the jaw. Galella’s work has received so much attention of late because his body of work manifests the fraught relationship between celebrities and the paparazzi – the malleability of their arrangement that vacillates wildly between useful accomplice and adversary depending on the circumstances. Galella does not capture the fragility and vulnerability of his subjects but rather individuals who very much understand their fate and role in our culture.