June 7, 2010
Posted: 03:16 PM ET
Paparazzo Ron Galella has been screamed at by some of the biggest stars in the business. Marlon Brando punched him in the head, breaking his jaw and knocking out five teeth. Jackie Kennedy Onassis sued him to keep him away from her and her children.
In the 50 years he's been doing this job, there’s no denying he got some of the most intimate, iconic shots of stars that anyone had seen (he calls one of his photos of Onassis, “windblown Jackie,” his perfect picture). But today, Galella says there’s no art in celebrity photographs, that the paparazzi are doing it for the money, not the craft.
Galella’s life and work are being examined in a new documentary called “Smash His Camera” – the title taken from the instruction Mrs. Kennedy supposedly yelled to her Secret Service detail after Galella followed her in New York’s Central Park. “Smash His Camera” premieres on HBO Monday, June 07.
Galella spoke to LKL Blog about his work, whether he had any regrets about how he got some of his photos and how celebrity and the paparazzi have changed since he first started.
LKL Blog: In the 30-plus years you've been doing this, how has the game changed?
Ron Galella: It's changed drastically for the worse. When I did it, it was one-to-one. It was great to do photography, the way I captured stars in their environment, in the space necessary. I could create, move around, there was freedom to do all of this. But today, with so many photographers in each other's way, it became difficult. And then there's the bodyguards in the way, fans – there's too many obstacles to make great pictures.
And also the motivation. I had a motivation, a love, a passion for photography. I had a degree in photojournalism and I did my own darkroom work, I composed the pictures – all of this made me in control. I loved it. But today, I think most of the photographers are uneducated, they pick up a camera and they do it for the money. That's a very bad motivation in my eyes, anyway.
LKL Blog: Do you think that the subject – celebrity – is different today as well?
Galella: Yes, celebrities are more shallow. They're not the great icons of yesterday, like Bette Davis or Liz Taylor. Today we have – I call them the "featherweights" – Lindsay Lohan, Britney Spears, and the others. They are young and pretty, that's nice, that's what makes them interesting. But they don't have the talent that the stars of yesteryear had.
To me, that's not too good.
LKL Blog: You had a – what some might call contentious – relationship with some of the people you photographed. What was the relationship like?
Galella: Because I became famous, or infamous, due to the trial in 1972 with Jackie [Onassis] and the [Marlon] Brando incident a year later. So this was a great plus for me.
I used a wide angle and got close to the starts, like six or eight feet away, and I could get their reactions. I would start shooting and they would know me and I would get great quotes from them as well. That made the relationship great. They recognized me. Candice Bergen said, "It's rare that you get stars on both sides of the camera."
LKL Blog: After Marlon Brando clocked you and broke your jaw, you still followed him.
Galella: He shook my hand. He was very nice to me. He was very nice to me after.
LKL Blog: So you made up.
Ron: Yes, we did.
Galella: Not really. I don't go on their property. But I did knock on Doris Day's door. And she answered and I started shooting and she asked if I was a professional and I said yes. Then she slammed the door in my face. But I don't know if that's public or private – the door. I think it's public because the mailman goes to deliver, right?
LKL Blog: Well, a lot of people would ask, not whether it's public or private, but is it okay? Are you invading any privacy?
Galella: No, no. I don't feel bad. I shoot pictures in good taste. I don't like pictures that the paparazzi go after today, showing cellulite on their thighs, I don’t go for that. I go for beauty.
Like my "windblown Jackie" photo, there's no hairdo, no make up, but she's beautiful. I'm after beauty, really. I like to show beauty. We all see stars on the big screen and TV in character. But I want to show the stars when they're themselves.
LKL Blog: So what makes the perfect paparazzo photo? What are you looking for?
Galella: Well, the "windblown Jackie" is my ideal one because it has all the – what I call "paparazzi qualities." Number one, it was exclusive, I was the only photographer. Number two, it was spontaneous. I hid in the back of a taxi and luckily, the driver blew the horn – I didn't tell him to do that. And she didn't recognize me because I had the camera in front of my face. But the moment I got out of the taxi, she saw me and she put on her glasses right away. And I photographed a few more pictures of her and she turned around and said, 'Are you pleased with yourself?' And I said, 'Yes, thank you.' and I stopped. Any star that doesn't want to be photographed, I stop. But I get one photograph of them – I shoot fast, sneaking up on them to get the surprise picture.
LKL Blog: A lot of people saw you as the bad guy, the villain, for what you were doing. So what is the biggest misconception about you – about what you do?
Galella: I think the biggest misconception might be that I don't ask permission. But I’m in public areas, so I don't feel guilty. If they're in public, they're fair game.
The other thing is people think I got bad publicity because "Oh, poor Jackie" that I went after her, hounded her. But that's not true. I didn't hound this woman. Actually, the facts are – I photographed her in my best year, 1970, 20 times. That's not a lot. Twenty times in one year and that's the best year I had.
Now look at the "featherweights," like Lindsay Lohan. They are photographed day and night. Bombarded by gangs of photographers. But they love it, you see.
LKL Blog: Why do you think people connect to these photos?
Galella: Well, we all are interested in celebrity. We want to know why they are as beautiful as we see them on the screen. What are they like? We all want to know. And that's what I try to reveal, what they're like in their real life. And that's what I try to sell. They are themselves when you capture them doing things. And that's the key that I’m looking for: capture stars being themselves, being human beings. We can say, 'Look, they're just like us.'
Will Rogers said it best, "It's great to be great, but it's greater to be human." And I want to capture stars as human.
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