May 31, 2010

Paparazzo Stays in the Picture

Ron Galella is finally taking a break. The self-described paprazzo superstar, who once spent his time sneaking into hotels and prowling the streets for celebrities, now covers events only sparingly. Instead, Mr. Galella is concentrating on selling his prints in fine-art galleries, producing photography books featuring his work, and promoting "Smash His Camera," a documentary directed by Leon Gast about his career that airs June 7 on HBO.
Born into an Italian family in the Bronx, Mr. Galella, 79, didn't have the money to go to college, so he enlisted in the Air Force during the Korean war "to learn a career." There he became interested in photography, buying his first camera—a roloflex—off a sergeant in the photo lab and studying photography encyclopedias to learn his craft. After the war, he took advantage of the G.I. Bill to enroll at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Calif., and began freelancing in 1958. He went on to shoot such luminaries as Marlon Brando (who famously knocked out five of Mr. Galella's teeth in 1973) and Jackie Kennedy Onassis (who sued him twice).
Mr. Galella says he is different from paparazzi photographers working today, whom he calls "gangbangers." "They just do it for the money, and that to me is not a good motive," he says. "To me, shooting the picture is the first reward. The check is the last reward."
Mr. Galella spoke with the Wall Street Journal about his craft, and why they don't make paparazzi like they used to.

Wall Street Journal: What's the biggest difference between being a paparazzo now versus during your heyday?
Ron Galella: There was a great freedom to move about and get into events. For example, I once followed Sophia Loren on board a plane at JFK. I just boarded the plane after her and took a picture of her with her son in her lap. Nobody questioned me; I just walked on and got off before the flight took off. Now you can't even get to the gate.
Plus, everyone gets the same picture. I don't know how they make a living now. When I did it, I didn't get a lot of money for the pictures, just normal rates, but I got them from a lot of different outlets. I'd rather do that then sell to one publication for double or triple that rate. The whole thing is my passion. I'm glad I did it my way.
WSJ: Do the actions of today's aggressive photographers tarnish the legacy of paparazzi like yourself?
Mr. Galella: I think it does. Nowadays, there's too many of them. There's no freedom to move and all the photographers get in each other's way, and it's dangerous sometimes. When I was shooting Jackie, my best year was 1970, and I got her 20 times throughout the course of the year. Today, the gangbangers shoot Paris Hilton, Britney Spears, and other people I call "featherweights" all day and night. And they love it! Things have certainly changed.
WSJ: What makes a good paparazzo photograph?
Mr. Galella: The best is always the exclusive. No matter who is it, if you're the only one who has it, you'll make money. It's like an original painting. Then, stars doing unusual things or things that humanize them. I once got Julie Christie barefoot in a market in Malibu. Getting pictures of stars doing things is the main thing. On the red carpet nowadays, you get stars looking directly at the camera, and that's terrible. I like people doing things and relating to each other, getting natural expressions.
WSJ: Having spent your career shooting pictures of other people, how did it feel having documentarians record your every move?
Mr. Galella: I love it. I'm a ham, in a way; I could have been an actor. In fact, when I was studying at the art center, I would crash premieres and take pictures of people like Lucille Ball, William Holden and Frank Sinatra. To me, the whole thing was about curiosity. We see these stars on TV and in movies, and we want to know what they look like in person. Curiosity is the proper motivation.

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