Why we love our paparazzi.
In 1960, Federico Fellini made a movie called La Dolce Vita, The Sweet Life; with a title like that it was obviously a satire. Or a tragedy? Maybe every satire is a tragedy. This one is now considered a classic. It has Marcello Mastroianni playing a handsome tabloid journalist, a cad who is looking for love but can’t find it in all the women he feels compelled to bed.
La Dolce Vita shows a world that is so far from sweet or good. It says, isn’t the world sick? But it kept looking for three hours and $20 million at the U.S. box office.
There is a character in the film,“Paparazzo” a name in Italian slang that came to mean mosquito, a pest that bit. The character was based on a real photographer in Rome, Tazio Secchiaroli, who was relentless in his efforts to photograph famous people in compromising positions. He sometimes incited violence from the people he was trying to catch off guard.
The paparazzi phenomenon started in Rome in the late 1950s and early 1960s when American movie stars were sent from Hollywood to Cinecitta Studios to work and they hung out in the city at night. The American tabloid photo biz began in 1961 when Elizabeth Taylor fell for Richard Burton as they were shooting Cleopatra.
She was married to the singer Eddie Fisher; she had “stolen” him from the good little Debbie Reynolds. Liz was twenty-nine and Eddie was her fourth husband. She was the highest paid actress in the world. Then she saw Richard Burton as her tragic Antony.
Eddie and Liz went to Rome when production was moved from London and Richard took over the lead opposite Liz, at the suggestion of the replacement director she’d requested, Joseph Mankiewicz. It was all by her arrangement. So an affair was ordained. Magazines were hungry for evidence.
Ron Galella (1931–2022) learned how to take a picture and fix a camera in the Air Force. After he got out he went to Los Angeles and got a degree in photojournalism from the Art Center College of Design. “I started by crashing premieres,” he explained. And then he got on a plane to Italy with the intention of catching the naughty couple with his Nikon. Nerve would be his strongest play throughout his career.
Well, nerve and networks of people he would pay for information — doormen, desk clerks, chauffeurs, cab drivers…sailors. One of whom gave him a tip that Burton and Taylor would be giving a party on their yacht on the Thames in London. Galella paid a nightwatchman twelve dollars to lock him in a factory that looked over where the yacht was parked for the weekend.
Tour guides on boats sold tickets to tourists trying to catch a glimpse or even snap a picture of the amorous couple. Taylor and Burton were swarmed. She finally put up gauze curtains to block the view. All the while, Galella was on the other side of the boat in the empty building photographing her putting up those fabric shields.
The picture he is most proud of is one in which a clueless amateur is looking the wrong way while Ron gets the shot. He says the stars never knew he was there. Not until the double page spread in The National Enquirer.
We all knew that Ron had violated Taylor and Burton, but we didn’t care. Galella was a pest, but we wanted him to get our revenge on famous people. And then Galella piggybacked on their fame in the National Enquirer, who paid $400 for his story about getting the pictures, and they printed his face in the middle of the text, too.
The stars said their lives and their love had been invaded, but the huge money behind Cleopatra wanted the exploitation. That business and the magazine trade only hounded Taylor and Burton because of our dark desire. Two years later, Andy Warhol adored and imprisoned Liz in his iconic, mocking silk screen portraits. One sold for nearly $19 million in April.
Warhol’s oft quoted lines about photographs are rarely printed in full: “”My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous. It’s being in the right place at the wrong time. That’s why my favorite photographer is Ron Galella.”
Warhol’s fame was more important than his art, to him and to us. Galella obviously wanted to be famous, too, because he began recording his own picture in the factory on his first self-appointed assignment. He was so envious of the famous that he competed with them.
And he would soon become very well known in New York for hounding Jackie Onassis until she finally sued, saying he had made her life “intolerable.” When the 26-day trial was over he had to pay his lawyers $40,000, but Onassis had to pay hers $500,000, he reported. Maybe he made up those numbers and then he called it a bargain getting all that publicity. And what were we doing?
Ron said Jackie was complicit in the photographs but consider one of the enduring images from those ten years (from 1965–1975) where he is chasing her. He is looking anxiously at the person taking the shot, maybe taking his shot. Or did he hire someone to do it? Galella must’ve bought the negative and somehow as many times as it is printed no one ever asks why his name is on it when he obviously couldn’t have taken it.
He was a man of many self-delusions. In the case Onassis brought against Galella, the judge served him a restraining order to stay 150 yards away from her and 175 yards from her children. Those are Jackie’s lawyer’s numbers as reported in a movie made about Ron, with his assistance, called Smash the Camera (2010). In his recollection he shaves a hundred yards off the restraining order. In Ron’s calculations would fewer feet translate to less resistance from Jackie?
That case was in 1969. In 1975 he went back to court to say that the boundary was “stopping him from earning a living.” And in a show of male supremacy, the new judge decided the restraints were overkill and reduced them to 25 feet. By taking Ron’s side, the law made that perimeter invisible to him, Galella couldn’t help himself from penetrating it.
Did the judge understand what we wanted? How many times had we all watched Jackie bolting out of the car when the bullets hit her husband? We told ourselves we were trying to decide about her motives at that crisis moment, but we wanted fresh reasons to feel doubtful about her. (We’re still playing voyeur, why else were we watching the travesty of Amber and Johnny on live TV just the other day?)
When Jackie took Ron to court again another judge said if Galella tried getting close to her one more time, he’d go to jail for six years. Later, ruminating about why he chased Jackie O so relentlessly, he decided it was because he didn’t have a girlfriend at the time. “She was my girlfriend, in a way,” he confesses. So he expressed his secret adoration by victimizing her. But was Jackie our girl, too?
About this, the photo to which he is so closely tied, he said: “It’s a superior picture, like Da Vinci’s most famous painting, the ‘Mona Lisa […] It embodies all the qualities of my paparazzi approach: exclusive, unrehearsed, off-guard, spontaneous, no appointments — the only game.” Does he recognize the unequivocal rage in her eyes or the fury in her mouth? Do we see it? Is it sexy?
In 1979 Ron married Betty Lou Burke. “She had a soft voice like Jackie’s,” he remembered in the film. His perverted fantasy was lost on Betty Lou. She became his business partner. She negotiated the sale of his photographs. She did an amazing job since he ended up being represented by the very respected Staley Wise Gallery in New York who sold his photographs to museums all over the world. He was involved in the publication of over 20 books. And the magazine sales were the most lucrative.
But Bette Lou grinned in the film when she jabbed him, saying “he is as tight as the bark on a tree.” He gives a tour of their outdoor garden where he points to flowers in pots and says they’re fake. She says her husband “buys silk and plastic plants, dips them in a ten-gallon bucket of polyurethane and then he ‘plants them’ and calls it his garden. It’s an utter absolute humiliation,” she concludes with good humor. He adds, “Bette’s parents were in the flower business.” He’s smiling, too. Their teasing each other is the one thing in his life that doesn’t feel grim.
About his work he assesses: “Celebrities say they want to control the press. I say, ‘No!’ I’m the artist. I want to control. This is my medium.” Art is a big word in his vocabulary. His pictures are the same from the beginning of his three million negatives to the end.
The best are the ones where someone is telling him “NO!”: fighting the photographer and the system of celebrity, like Mick Jagger stuffing his middle finger into the lens. Galella never seemed interested in what any of his subjects felt, like say, the way Irving Penn caught Alfred Hitchcock’s very mixed feelings over seeing and being seen.
Hitchcock was a seasoned mugger for the camera, always mocking his pain at being ugly. But here he actually is saying in effect, ‘Alright, I admit it, this is what it feels like to be me, you don’t want that, trust me, I’m miserable.’ Penn set him up and Hitch lets the curtains down. He comes out looking intelligent. He gave that to Penn to give to us. That’s art.
Hitchcock was famous for his genius at filming threatened beauties — Ingrid Bergman, Grace Kelly, Kim Novak, Janet Leigh. It was said he loved to hear them scream. Didn’t we, too?
Galella missed the point that Mona Lisa’s smile is an enigma. Is she wise or sad, is she smiling at the painter or mocking him? Her face is full of conflicting possibilities that may all be true. That is the mystery and the mastery in the picture. It speaks to the complexity of human feelings. There is a contradiction in the Jackie photograph but it’s about the photographer’s motives in taking it.
While he is ignoring the possibility of her consent, which we know by the anger on her face, he is capturing her body in a tense but desirable pose. I hate to say it but look at that pert ass. You see how we are complicit? There you feel what Galella’s after. He singles her out and that makes her vulnerable and the more she resists, the more he persists. There is a rape fantasy buried in his methods.
Galella liked to say that he was “the Dean of Paparazzi.” Did he teach us to feel that kind of violence in photographs? Did he stir a sleeping hate in us and keep it churning with his relentless charge to break the confidence of famous people who just might want to walk down the street every now and then?
His pictures say, ‘I’m part of the machine that makes you extraordinary, but why should that feel good? Why should you rise above us? You need to suffer, too.’ What he gives us in his celebrity photos is a way to get back at them.
Even at a public event where Hitchcock went expecting to be photographed, Galella found an opportunity that his subject didn’t want captured. In the film, Peter Howe, the author of a book called “Paparazzi,” and the former picture editor of Life Magazine says, “This is an alliance between the photographers, the celebrities, the publishers, and the readers of the magazines and the viewers of programs on television. You can’t separate any piece of that alliance.” I appreciate that you need all the cogs to keep the wheel turning but do we need the wheel?
Galella said once about his role: “My job is thick with risks, threats, occasional violence, and sometimes the necessary folly that sometimes courts humiliation and ridicule. But I don’t care.”
Then why should we?