In memory of Ron Galella, the godfather of the American paparazzi

The iconic photographer was both loved and hated, but his work left an indelible mark on celebrity culture

“It is a superior image, like Leonardo da Vinci’s most famous painting, the mona-lisa“wrote Ron Galella on his most famous photograph, Jackie blown by the wind. He remembers spotting Kennedy Onassis at the corner of 85th and Madison, jumping into a taxi – “Follow that woman!” – and pressed the shutter once, twice, three times to capture the indelible image. It was 1971, and Jackie had a slight smile on her lips, looking over her shoulder as a breeze came from behind. She hadn’t recognized Galella yet. “He embodies all the qualities of my paparazzi approach,” the photographer continued. “Exclusive, unrehearsed, improvised, spontaneous, walk-in – the only game.”

Galella, who died Monday at 91, is said to be the godfather of American paparazzi culture. Newsweek nicknamed him Extraordinary Paparazziand Harper’s Bazaar considered him arguably the “most controversial of all time” in the industry he largely created. Galella stalked Jackie O; he pursued her relentlessly, to the point that she sued him, testifying that he had made her life “intolerable, almost unlivable, with his constant surveillance”. She wasn’t the only one. “What else do you want that you don’t already have?” spat Marlon Brando in June 1973, after Galella stalked him all day. “I’d like a pic without the sunglasses,” the photographer replied, earning himself a sucker punch to the jaw that knocked out five teeth. The next time he followed Brando, Galella was wearing a football helmet decorated with stars, and his name, Ronin delicate cursive script.

It’s a complicated legacy that Galella leaves behind. Photographer of the ages and the masses, he portrays the public figure in a light that did not really exist before. People looked in the car windows of Mick Jagger and Elvis Presley; at parties attended by Liza Minelli, David Bowie, Dionne Warwick, etc.; they could gaze upon celebrities – once untouchables – as they walked vulnerable through the streets of their neighborhood: Madonna and Sean Penn, Woody Allen and Diane Keaton, and of course, the enigmatic Jackie O, who, apparently, all American housewives were dying to catch a glimpse of.

Galella’s methods were audacious, but they rarely proved against the law. The golden age of photography came soon after New York Times Co. v. Sullivan (1964), the landmark Supreme Court decision that limited US politicians’ right to privacy, including limiting their ability to sue for defamation; the ruling was extended to all “public figures” in 1967. As long as Galella was in a public place, taking pictures of those who had achieved “pervasive fame and notoriety”, he could be as ruthless as he was. wished.

For better or worse, the photographer’s life’s work has set a precedent – ​​more, perhaps, than any court case within his professional jurisdiction. He was hated and loved, respected and mocked, featured in countless magazines and gallery shows, films and art books, chased by bodyguards, served restraining orders, and so on.

“My idea of ​​a good image is one that is clean and a famous person doing something infamous, Andy Warhol once said. “That’s why my favorite photographer is Ron Galella.”

“I’m going to kill Rob Galella!” cried Elizabeth Taylor, another day.

“Break his camera!” Jackie O ordered a Secret Service agent, after spotting Galella through the trees as she and her children cycled through the park. The quote became the title of a 2010 documentary, which detailed the nature and impact of the legendary photographer’s work.

Outside of public debate, Galella changed the world. His impact on popular culture will last forever, in the history books, in the web archives, and in the way we worship fame today. “My work is filled with risks, threats, occasional violence and sometimes the necessary madness that sometimes courts humiliation and ridicule,” said the photographer himself. “But I don’t care. I see myself as the dean of the American paparazzi.

About Julius Southworth

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