The Godfather of Paparazzi on a Business That Lost its Soul

The Godfather of Paparazzi on a Business That Lost its Soul

A few years ago, Ron Galella removed the word "paparazzo" from his letterhead. His stationary now simply reads "Ron Galella Photography," and he prefers to call his work "photography with a paparazzi approach."

This might seem odd, because the Bronx-born, 87-year-old artist made the word a household term in America. He was the first to define "paparazzo" — courtesy of filmmaker Federico Fellini, who used the Italian word for a mosquito's buzzing as a double entendre to name a pesky photographer's character in La Dolce Vita — as a profession, a side effect of a few high-profile legal skirmishes with celebrities in the 70's. His oft-belabored career highlight reel is something of a comic strip, including two lawsuits with Jackie Kennedy, five lost teeth to Marlon Brando (and a victorious $40 thousand settlement), being spit on by Sean Penn, a night in jail in Mexico on Richard Burton's behalf, slashed tires courtesy of Elvis Presley, and having security sicced on him by Brigitte Bardot.

But his reluctance to use the term today isn't so odd at all, when you think about the fact that Galella became a celebrity photographer to feed a ravenous obsession with the "off-guard, unrehearsed, spontaneous, no appointment" moments which he worked with maniacal ingenuity to capture. Galella sees himself as a photojournalist, heroically unmasking celebrities, not to humiliate them (well, except for the enraged leading men who took a swing at him now and then) or to make a buck (though he did, $1000 bucks for his best Jackie photo), but to loosen stars' steely grips on their images in order to capture something authentic.

While his hair-splitting over the ethical codes that he says distinguish him from today's celebrity stalkers (he never went to apartments, he always tried to be unseen, he never provoked stars, he never swarms in groups, and he claims he never invaded even Jackie's privacy, despite that restraining order), his photos are the real proof that he's a different breed.

His graceful, stolen moments of Warhol, Jagger, Lennon, McQueen and the Kennedys bear little resemblance to the deer-in-headlights flash photos of Miley Cyrus and Justin Bieber, or Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan before them, staggering out of clubs or picking wedgies on the beach — that were such a feverish commodity, in what PAPER's Abby Schrieber dubs in her Amanda Bynes cover story, paparazzi culture's lowest point. Paparazzi ruthlessness peaked around 2007, and has since swung to the other extreme: the Kardashian clan arranges meet-ups with, and hires pseudo-paparazzi to give them final airbrushed say on what makes it to the tabloids.

Ron Galella

Both scenarios would repulse Galella, who sees artistic independence, and the exclusive singularity of a spontaneous shot (that no other photographer has from a slightly different angle) as key to his work. On one hand, it seems like a paparazzo's identity as a capital A artist is what has changed the most: Warhol once called Galella his favorite photographer. But on the other, as Galella suggests "it's the people that demanded more, their curiosity grew, they wanted more," citing the consumer market for tabloid news that bloated the streets of New York and LA with photographers, making the quiet moments he hunted hard to come by.

Not everything has changed. We're still insatiably curious about the intimate lives of celebrities: and relentless photographers helping us get our fix. But today, Galella's descendants are too close to fulfilling the prophecy of Fellini's buzzing mosquitoes, for him to take ownership over what's become of the art he loved.

Galella spoke with PAPER about the wild stories behind his most iconic shots, the beatings he took for his art, and what has changed for the worse since the paparazzi's golden age.

How and when did you become a paparazzo?

I was actually a ceramic artist in 1951, working in New York. The Korean War was going on at that time and I was drafted in the army. But I wanted to learn a career, so I avoided the draft and enlisted in the Air Force instead. That's where I became a photographer. I served in the Air Force for four years and learned all about photography and camera repair. I was lucky. After I got out of the Air Force in '55, I went to Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, and majored in photojournalism. I was interested in glamour — what stars look like in person, what their lives are like. I started by crashing premieres.

How do you define "paparazzi?

When I was researching my first book, Jacqueline, in 1974, I wrote to Federico Fellini, the filmmaker who coined this word, "paparazzi," and asked him how he came up with it. He told me that when he was a schoolboy in Rimini, Italy, he shared a desk with a restless boy who was always screaming, talking so fast, that his words came out stuck together like an endless buzzing. So, the teacher baptized him paparazzo, Italian for a buzzing mosquito. When [Fellini] was writing the script for La Dolce Vita, the word reminded him of one of his characters, a photojournalists. The paparazzo actually became famous in America not with Fellini, but with my trial with Jackie [Kennedy], which went for 26 days in 1972.

But for me, it's different –– I'm a self-styled paparazzo. I designed my letterhead to say "photography with a paparazzi approach." What I mean when I say paparazzo, is exclusive, off-guard, unrehearsed, spontaneous, no appointments. That's how I define paparazzo.

Elvis Presley

Why is the distinction important for you, "paparazzi" versus "photographer with a paparazzi approach"?

First of all, for me, a paparazzo is freelancer. I'm a freelancer, independent. That's one of the things about real paparazzo, they're freelancers.

My approach is to capture stars realistically, as they are, in their environment. See the paparazzo in Europe in Italy in La Dolce Vita — and today — they are very aggressive and sometimes they provoke stars to make them more salable, the pictures. That's not what I'm interested in. I don't ever provoke stars. My approach and my pictures speak for themselves.

Did you ever consider a more conventional pathway, like being a portrait photographer?

No, you see, in a way I was forced to be a paparazzo. After I graduated in 1958 from Arts Center, I went back to the Bronx to live at my father's house where I built a dark room. In other words I was trained to be a studio photographer but I didn't have the money. I had to freelance, I was forced to make the world my studio. I was 12 miles from Manhattan, where the action is. It's a good thing that I was not a studio photographer.

Why do you say that?

Because I would be competing with Irving Penn and great studio photographers. But I offered something different. I offered pictures that revealed people. Take my greatest picture, "Windblown Jackie."

"My approach is to capture stars realistically, as they are, in their environment."

How did you get "Windblown Jackie"?

I was out photographing a girl, a model who needed pictures for her portfolio and she lived near Jackie. I was photographing her in Central Park, hoping that I might get Jackie jogging. But I didn't. Instead, I saw her coming out of the car. I went to 85th towards Madison. Jackie slipped out of the backdoor and didn't see me so I went to the corner following her as she went north on Madison Avenue.

Instead of running after her, I hopped a cab — to get the off guard picture you have to hide. If I'd run after her, I'd never get the "Windblown Jackie." So I got out of the cab and found her 90th street. I rolled down the window and got two good profile shots. She didn't see even me or hear the clicks, it was in the afternoon, New York traffic. And then luck was with me. The driver of the cab blew his horn — I didn't even tell him to — and then she turned and that's how I got the perfect picture of her Mona Lisa smile.

She recognized me after I got out of the cab and put on her glasses. I gave the camera to Joy Smith and I said photograph me with Jackie and she got a great picture of me going up to Jackie, after which Jackie turned towards me and said "are you pleased with yourself?" She was a little pissed and I said "yes thank you."

We see Jackie informally dressed in Levi's and no makeup, wind blowing in her hair, and most of all, that Mona Lisa smile. You can't get this in the studio. You see, if she went to the studio, she would have a designer gown, she would be all made up with the hair: this is the difference. The public always sees Jackie with her Valentino dress. But here you see her informally dressed, no makeup. And her smile, it's the same thing that made Da Vinci's "Mona Lisa" great, just the eyes and the lips, the beginning of the smile.

Would you say you're seeking authenticity?

I capture stars as they are in their environment. The paparazzo does not rely on events. Events are not real paparazzi. Everybody gets the same picture at events or premieres. What a paparazzo does is he creates and discovers a photo opportunity, like getting them at their hotel or wherever they are in streets or airports, everyday things, they're more original.

Robert Redford

Why do you think images of celebrities are so important to us? Why are we so enthralled?

It's a curiosity. In our culture, everybody wants to be rich and famous and therefore they are interested in celebrities how they became rich and famous so I think that's the reason. We all want to be rich and famous, we all do!

We also want to see heroes and heroines, we want to see successful people. That's why People Magazine is a successful magazine, whereas LIFE went out of business. People don't want to read about war and negative things. Celebrities are positive things and everybody's curious how they became famous, how beautiful they are. Curiosity...

And what role do you think paparazzo plays in media and journalism?

I consider myself an artistic photojournalist. The photographers today, especially in Los Angeles, they are "gangbangers" and they are uneducated for the most part, and they do it for the money! I never did it for the money, I did it for the art, and I learned from artists. I photographed celebrities one-to-one, eye-to-eye, there was no gang-banging. There weren't swarms, there were very few photographers.

Gang-banging means there are swarms of paparazzi in Los Angeles, that approach the celebrities, surround them, get in each other's way. I don't know how they make a living and because they all get the same pictures. I never had that, very few times did I have that situation, because I always wanted to get exclusive photos, so I went to airports or hotels where the celebrities were and followed.

"The photographers today, especially in Los Angeles, they are 'gangbangers' and they are uneducated for the most part."

What do you make of criticisms that paparazzi violate people's' privacy in a way that can be damaging to their mental health?

I don't think that was the case with me. For instance, Jackie, she claimed in the court that she was a private person and that I was invading her privacy. Well that's not true, I never really invaded her privacy. I never even went into her hotel or her apartment lobby. I shot always outside in public areas, you see I never go to celebrities' homes unless I'm invited to shoot. That's where privacy is really at their home.

Even when Jackie filed a restraining order against, you don't think she felt you violated her privacy?

In reality, I don't think so. Her lawyers said that in order to win the case, they had to say I harassed her. For instance, the bicycle pictures on the pier, she testified that I jumped out and almost made John crash into traffic. She said that I endangered his life. But that's not true! The picture's don't show this, you see? But to win the case she had to lie and that's the way it is. But as I said even though I lost I won the million dollar — more than million dollar, more than money can buy I got publicity, more than money.

How did that lawsuit come about?

Once I was following her and her son on Fifth avenue and then all of a sudden a secret service came on a bike, Mr. Connelly, and she said, "Mr. Connelly, smash his camera!" She sent them after after me to get the film. I was arrested me and so I sued her for interfering with my livelihood. Anyway, the case was dismissed and my lawyer said you could bill her my fee because his fee was $45 and I billed her but I never heard from her.

Jackie Kennedy, John Kennedy Jr.

When did she file a restraining order?

Well that was the second trial. I couldn't go after her for 50 yards and I appealed and it was reduced for 25 feet. So now back in 1975, I resumed photographing her and I broke this injunction many times and that was the second trial that lasted a week in 1981 where I lost again. It was the same judge and I could never win because the judge was appointed by President Kennedy. The judge said I broke the injunction of 25 feet four times, and I said "No, more times!" and I gave them a whole stack of pictures [Laughs]. My point was she didn't mind being photographed by me because she was all smiles in all these pictures. So here's a good point, for the both trials in '72 and '81 she kept all my pictures and she gave it to the library in Boston, the J.F.K library, and I gave her my first book, Jacqueline, autographed through the doormen and even before she died my book was still on her shelf in the library.

So besides Jackie, who were your favorite people to shoot?

Right now, my favorite now is Taylor Swift, I think she's a beauty. I love her except I'm not really crazy about her music. Nicole Kidman is one of my favorites also. And of course Elizabeth Taylor. I have a bigger file of Elizabeth Taylor than Jackie, because Liz went to more events. Some of my best pictures of her were destroyed, though. I have a chapter in my book called "The Bad Boys" all about it.

Who were the "Bad Boys"?

The bad boys were Elvis, Sean Penn is another one. Richard Burton was the worst though. One time he was filming in Mexico for the film Hammersmith is Out. I went down to photograph at a hotel they were filming at. The manager was cooperative, because he wanted publicity for the film and he said, "Where do you want to hide for this big scene this party scene?" I said I'm going to hide in one of the caves. And so he said " 5:00 they are going start filming." So I was in this cave where the pump for the pool was, and I started shooting the party but then crewmen came in the cave to turn off the pump because it was making noise. They caught me in the cave. They released me, but they got the key to my hotel room and took my 15 rolls of film (one week's shooting). So, I went back to the set trying to get Peter Ustinov, the director, trying to get my film back. Which is when three crewmen come over to me and beat me up! They knocked out my teeth, gave me a black eye, and the security police are watching me. I say, "you gotta arrest these men." So they arrested one of them and me, they put me in jail along with him for about 45 minutes then they released me. I went back to the set and found the film scattered on the deck, 15 rolls destroyed.

That must have been heartbreaking.

They destroyed my art! Besides being beat up with a broken tooth and a black eye and having jail, I lost my lawsuit because the hotel proprietor didn't want to testify (probably paid off). But they did offer me $1,500 to say that Richard Burton was not responsible for the incident. But I refused to say that, because it's not true. You know, years later he made it up to me. After he divorced Elizabeth Taylor and he married another woman Sally Hay, and I got a call from the chauffeur saying he wants wedding pictures. So I got exclusive wedding pictures of Richard Burton and his new bride. He made it up to me, he felt guilty for what happened in Mexico, so I gave him a set of pictures and he thanked me.

When you ended up hurt or in jail, were you ever discouraged?

Well it's discouraging of course. Especially when Brando punched me. What happened is that Brando flew from Tahiti all the way to New York to do the Dick Cavett show and it was in the paper so I knew and I got him at the helicopter and the studio but the photos weren't great. So I waited for Brando to come out later, and I followed him with a fan friend. We followed him to Chinatown then they went to a restaurant for dinner and then I got about 10 pictures of him walking to the restaurant. Then Brando stopped with Cavett and he waved me over with his hands and says, "What else do you want that you don't already have?" I said, because this was night time and they wore dark sunglasses, "How about a picture without the glasses?" Without even a mumble [Brando] socked me and knocked five teeth out of my jaw.

Marlon Brando, Ron Galella

Do you have a theory right about why he was so angry?

Yes I found out why. At first I thought maybe he socked me because I had lots of pictures and maybe he thought I was greedy. I was wrong. What I found out years later, is that Brando had an affair with Jackie in 1965 at The Carlyle hotel while her apartment on Fifth Avenue was being renovated. So that made me realize that that's why he socked me because in the limousine they knew I was following and Dick Cavett says, "That's Ron Galella following us and he's the one who went to court with Jackie." So that triggered off in Brando's mind and I think he was sympathetic to Jackie, that's why he socked me. A year later he had a big press conference at the Waldorf-Astoria, and I came prepared with a helmet! It ran in People magazine double page and I bought the negative from him and it's my greatest publicity picture, besides me running after Jackie. Two greatest pictures.

Did you wear it in a tongue-in-cheek way or did you really think he might hit you?

No it was a joke. He didn't hurt me. Another joke was Jackie went to L.A. which is very rare for a big benefit at the music center there and she went to a club after, and she went there and I came prepared with a tape measurer for staying 25 feet. So in other words I made a joke that I have to stay away 25 feet so I held it out and I was breaking it I was only about five feet away from her and holding it and that picture is also in my book and that was published. It's a joke too that I have to stay 25 feet.

This was all so playful for you.

Yeah, I love my work. For me, I had so much passion that it didn't seem like work. Photography is the art of today. I don't think painting and sculpture is the art of today, it's really photography — it's the greatest and that's what I believe.

The 60's and 70's are called the golden age of paparazzi. What do you think has changed?

Well I think it's the people that demanded more, their curiosity they wanted more. The public wanted more, so the newspapers provided. Magazines like People Magazine came and then Star came out,and more and more movie and fan magazines. But the demand was so great that's why People came out in 1975 and Star and other publications.

"I don't think painting and sculpture is the art of today, it's really photography."

Do you think that's why paparazzi has become more invasive and disrespectful?

Yeah it's become more negative now because there's just too much. It's overexposed, they're dangerous. They provoke stars. They want to see stars fall to get the picture, just like the old La Dolce Vita. They want to provoke stars to get salable pictures. It's unethical. I took "paparazzi" off my letterhead, and put a new letter saying "Ron Galella Photography."

Do you think there's still an art to paparazzi?

Well there could be... but most of them they shoot digitally and shoot a lot of film because it's cheap. They rely on luck. I don't know if there's an art... I think I was one of few who became an artist. Most paparazzi are not artistic, they just do it for money and rely on luck and few are educated in art.

How do you think social media has changed celebrity culture in your opinion?

Well, it's instant news. I think in a way celebrity has become over-exposed. TV has a lot to do with it. In other words, if we go back to the '30s and '40s we had great superstars like Bette Davis where they had talent in the motion pictures, but then when television came about people don't have to have talent because they have to fill it up 24-7. It becomes too over-exposed to me and in other words, you get on television just because of your looks.

So there's not so much mystery.

Yeah, Jackie and Greta Garbo, they were the meaning of glamour is that mystery is part of it. Jackie had this mystique that people want to know her; she didn't talk, she don't give interviews, she has these dark glasses, where she sees the world but they can't see her, they can't see her eyes. That's how she guards her privacy with her glasses, that's a point to bring out. Greta Garbo is the same thing. She actually wanted to quit when she was young and didn't wanna be published when she's older. I got her when she was walking on Second Ave and she pulled out her umbrella even though it wasn't raining and she said to me, "Why do you shoot me I have done nothing wrong?" So I stopped shooting her.

John Lennon, Mick Jagger, May Pang

Tell me about this shot of Lennon and Jagger.

This is my second biggest picture of Mick Jagger and John Lennon. Every year the AFI (American Film Institute) honors a photographer or a director. This year was James Cagney and he drew the biggest amount of celebrity, you won't believe how many like Frank Sinatra with Barbara and Steve McQueen with Ali MacGraw, Paul Newman with his wife, Robert Wagner with Natalie Wood, etc. I crashed these premieres. I dressed in a tuxedo and went to the dinner at the press table, so I got that picture with a long lens. In between them you can see May Pang, the back of her head. John Lennon had an affair with Mai Pang and that's her even though Yoko knew this! She didn't mind it, imagine that!

Elizabeth Taylor

Another time, I did a bizarre thing with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. They had a yacht in London called the Kalizma named after their three daughters: Kate, Liza, and Maria, moored on the Thames. They went to the yacht on weekends only because they were filming (Elizabeth Taylor was filming The Only Game in Town with Warren Beatty and Man of 1000 Days was being filmed with Richard Burton). So I decided to spend a weekend in this warehouse, for the weekend of a big party. I got a shopping bag full of food, and Friday at 2 pm I went to the watchmen in the warehouse and I gave them 15 dollars. I said, "Lock me in until Monday morning." So I couldn't get out of this warehouse from Friday to Monday, and I got great pictures of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in their yacht. One of my favorite shots shows Elizabeth Taylor and Ramone, the yacht steward putting up gauze curtains.

Andy Warhol

What was your relationship like with Andy Warhol?

Andy and I had the same social disease, we wanted to be everywhere with celebrities. We were friendly, we exchanged information and tips. He once said I was favorite photographer and I think the reason he said I was his favorite is because I photographed the same people that he liked — he liked Elizabeth Taylor, he liked Jackie, Elvis, so we had the same interests in celebrities and he admired my technique of getting the picture aggressively. But he was kind of shy you see, he was a shy guy and he would most likely be in the pictures with other people rather than shoot like I did. But he admired me...

Sean Penn

And this one of Sean Penn?

Sean Penn, he's one of the bad boys. He went to pick up his wife Madonna at Lincoln Center. They went in a limousine this time to The Ginger Man, a restaurant on 66th street, the same block Madonna lived on. They had dinner at The Ginger Man and they walked to their apartment, which is about a block. I wasn't the only photographer; there were other paparazzi shooting and one of them was my nephew who worked for me, Anthony. We got to the apartment and we crossed into the courtyard, and he says, "Oh now you did it!" And he spit at me and swung at my nephew Anthony. Neither one got hurt. Madonna was at the door yelling, "Stop, stop Sean come back! Stop!"

'Shooting Stars - The Untold Stories: A Memoir' by Ron Galella is out in December

(Photos courtesy of Ron Galella)