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One of the oldest photographers shooting arrivals at the Costume Institute gala this year was surely Ron Galella, 83.
He doesn’t shoot paparazzo style anymore — he can’t, not with his cane and clunky orthopedic shoes. He was just stationed by the TV crews and waited for all the stars to promenade in front of him. “It’s easy shooting,” he says. “My favorites are Taylor Swift, Nicole Kidman. She’s going to be Grace Kelly, you know?”
The gala is the only event Galella works anymore, but he is not retired. This month, he’s publishing a new book, his 15th, again culling the old, by now familiar, images from his archives and categorized under a particular theme. New York is the subject of the latest one and it will be followed up with tomes tentatively titled “Sexy Fashion” and “Nudes.” You can guess what those are about.
Galella spends his day poring over his vast archives searching for some picture he overlooked, some gem buried in his contacts. “Mining the gold in my files,” as he says. He’s not another old guy reminiscing about his heyday — or not just. Nostalgia is a big business for him, the engine that keeps him living in the style of Tony Soprano, in a palatial home in a tony neighborhood of New Jersey — Montville, in his case. Interest in all his pictures from back when he was still the undefeated don of the paparazzi — of Jackie, Liz and Brando — keeps him in circulation in fine art galleries around the world. An 8-by-10 print might easily fetch $2,500, and he distributes scores of them to galleries daily.
“That’s where I make my money, really. It’s the gallery prints. The books are a good showcase, but I don’t make much money for them,” he says. “I’m reaping the benefits of a long career.”
Galella was speaking from the home he’s shared with his wife Betty for more than two decades. It is covered top to bottom in pictures — a Jackie over the fireplace, a Liz by the staircase, an Andy Warhol etched onto the back of a chair — and fistfuls of porcelain rabbits — his and Betty’s favorite animal. Boxes of film are scattered all over the place — “Mick Jagger Alone,” “Elvis Presley with others.” The negatives of his most famous pictures — “Windblown Jackie” and a shot of Galella in a football helmet trailing Marlon Brando — are also here, stored away in a safe.
He’s on a couch, with all his books displayed in front of him, flipping through the pages of “New York,” the new book from Damiani and Row NYC that features images extending from 1968 to 1992, all the way from Warhol’s prime to his memorial service luncheon.
There’s Madonna and Sean Penn in 1986 walking into a restaurant. Galella recalls his nephew got into a fight with the actor.
“Madonna was yelling, ‘Stop, stop! Come in!’” he says. “Sean stopped, then turned around and socked [a paparazzo] in the nose. He didn’t pick on me because I’m bigger. Sean Penn is kinda puny.”
In those days, he drove to Manhattan from the Bronx, where he lived in his father’s basement, in a 1970 Pontiac Firebird, bright yellow and orange. “They always knew when I was coming,” he says.
There’s Warhol and Keith Haring at Tunnel in 1986.
“Andy liked me a lot, I think, because we liked the same celebrities and because I had the chutzpah and he was shy and he didn’t get the pictures I got,” he says. “We had the same social disease. We want to be everywhere and we want to cover everything.”
There’s Diane von Furstenberg in 1978 at Studio 54, all legs and high cheekbones.
“At the Met gala, she came up to me and kissed me,” he says. “She’s the only celebrity that came over and kissed me.”
It makes sense that von Furstenberg would be the only personality to appreciate him — she came of age in the public eye in a time before TMZ, Kim Kardashian and Instagram overshares, before image management was a key element of celebrity stagecraft.
“Today, the celebrities have changed. They’re more aware of the cameras,” Galella says, disappointed. “I like stars being themselves instead of posing where you get a phony expression. I keep my distance. I’m not an insider like Patrick McMullan. He gets all the stars posing together. I don’t like that style.”
He’ll still shoot the Costume Institute gala again next year, if only just to stay in practice. But nothing else. He has books to publish yet, one a year if he keeps up his pace. “I have no time,” he says. “I’m 83.”