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There are certain people who might someday come to feel guilty about having spent a lifetime hounding celebrities for their pictures. Ron Galella is not one of them. “I’m trying to think of someone I’d like to apologize to, but I really can’t think of a particular incident,” the veteran paparazzo said recently. “I usually waited for people to swallow their food. Most of the time I’m a gentleman. Now my work is hanging in galleries and museums.”
Indeed, it is. After 40 years of being sued by Jackie O, getting beaten up by Marlon Brando and having a trash can thrown at him by Elaine Kaufman outside her famous Upper East Side celebrity hangout, the photographer, now 74, is having a resurgence. Starting tonight, an exhibition of his work will be on display at the Ferragamo store on Fifth Avenue. Later this month, he’s releasing “Ron Galella’s Exclusive Diary” (Photology), a second collection of his photography and notes that follows the successful 2001 coffee-table book “The Photographs of Ron Galella,” which was published by Lisa Eisner’s Greybull Press.
WWD sat down with him at his suburban New Jersey home to talk about Jackie, the state of the paparazzi today, and why he’s no longer really shooting.
WWD: Has the growth of the paparazzi impacted the quality of the photography?
Ron Galella: When I started out in the mid-Sixties, there was just The National Enquirer and the fan magazines. Then in 1975, People and the Star came out and public interest was tremendous. Now it’s really crazy. It’s overboard. There are too many photographers, there’s too many p.r. people trying to control the press and there are too many security trying to control the press. In doing so, they did great harm to my great freedom that I’d had in the past, where I could get great pictures. In photojournalism, you have to move to get the right composition, the right angle and the light, etc. My whole thing is off guard, spontaneous, unrehearsed. Nowadays, if you cover a premiere, you’re lucky just to get in the front row. The conditions are much more difficult and the likelihood is that everyone gets the same picture with the celebrity smiling perfectly into the camera. A lot of the celebrity photographers who get inside of the events, Patrick McMullan, Ocean Drive, all those magazines, they get inside and what do they do? They shoot the stars like ‘look at me’ and you see the faces straight on.
This story first appeared in the September 12, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
To me, that’s not good photography. That’s not photojournalism. I hardly even call after a celebrity unless they’re walking away. And I like photographs in which celebrities do things, just like Dustin Hoffman feeding the dogs. I followed him from the Plaza Hotel into Central Park. I didn’t ask him to do that. He just did it.
WWD: What won’t you shoot? How far is too far?
R.G.: I don’t like to shoot funerals, like when Phil Ramey shot the body bag of Rock Hudson. For me, that’s going too far. And when a celebrity doesn’t want any more pictures, I leave. Usually. The game is to get them before they say that so you can do it.
WWD: That’s a bit of a cop-out, don’t you think?
R.G.: Well, that’s what you want. The surprise picture. But I’ll leave. With Brando, he got me off guard. He didn’t say, ‘Get lost.’ He didn’t say one thing except: ‘What else do you want that you don’t already have?’ because I took 10 shots of him walking in Chinatown. So I looked at Dick Cavett [whom Brando was with] and told him what I wanted. I was thinking he would tell Brando, ‘Do it. It’ll get get rid of this guy.’ Instead Brando said, ‘No,’ and knocked my teeth out.
WWD: What else besides dead people won’t you photograph?
R.G.: There are ethical rules. You have to respect the celebrity’s wishes, more or less. I will not go on their property or into their house. But I will knock on their door. I knocked on the door of Doris Day in Beverly Hills and she answered and said, ‘Are you a professional?’ I said, ‘Yes,’ and she slammed the door in my face. But I did get a couple shots of her in the back of her house swimming in the pool with her dog. I went next door to the neighbor’s property and the gardener gave me permission to shoot from there.
WWD: Do you think the paparazzi today have ethical rules?
R.G.: No. They’re unethical nowadays. They go too far, especially the photographers in Los Angeles with X17, Splash and a couple of the other agencies. They gang-bang the celebrities and use aggressive techniques. They pursue the star in high-speed chases and they surround the stars and provoke them to get in an incident because that will sell the pictures. To me, provoking celebrities is unethical. It’s wrong.
WWD: Do you feel at all responsible for the environment of this since you are sort of the godfather of the paparazzi?
R.G.: No, I don’t. I feel that it’s the magazines who pay high amounts of money for an exclusive take of the celebrities that are hot nowadays. It’s the money motivating the paparazzi. I was never a money-motivated photographer. I loved photography and I loved photographing the world of celebrities. The most I ever got was $5,000 and it was a split between the Star and Newsweek in 1980 for a shot of Ted Kennedy when he was running for president.
WWD: Do you still buy the tabloids and look at the photographs? What do you think of the Star and Us Weekly?
R.G.: We subscribe to them. I don’t even look at them. They’re interchangeable, all of these magazines. The fashion particularly. It’s all the same full-length shots. My wife [who runs Galella’s business] goes through for credits and billing. Once in a while, she’ll show me something like Katie Holmes with all of the pimples.
WWD: What do you think when they go out of their way to show the most unflattering aspect of a person? When they do a blowup of her lips and it looks like she might have herpes?
R.G.: It’s not something I’d do. I’m a positive person. I look for beauty in life. There’s a famous photograph of Liz Taylor coming out of the hospital in what looked like a casket, but I didn’t take it. I’d rather have a photograph of someone coming out of the hospital cured.
WWD: How much do you shoot today?
R.G.: I only shoot big events, like big premieres and the Tony Awards. I did the premiere of ‘War of the Worlds.’ But I don’t go out like I used to.
WWD: Why not?
R.G.: For me, it’s a matter of convenience. My time is too valuable. I’m scanning thousands of images to my agency, WireImage. I have two books I’m working on and exhibitions coming up.
WWD: Does your arthritis contribute to you not going out as much?
R.G.: A little bit. I can’t run. My knees hurt.
WWD: Do you miss it?
R.G.: No, I don’t. I feel that I got the best of subjects: Liz Taylor, Jackie O and Princess Diana. To me, the celebrities of today are like live mannequins. Britney Spears, the Hilton girls, you name them. They get attention by wearing sexy clothes or no clothes at all. They’re publicity hounds. For the most part, they love the paparazzi going after them.
WWD: Did you chase Jackie because she ran away from you?
R.G.: I don’t think she ran, necessarily, although that one time in the park she did. But that was because she wanted to get me away from Caroline and she wanted to show that I was harassing her because that’s what she was trying to prove in court. The pictures helped her case.
WWD: I was speaking metaphorically, but weren’t you harassing her a little?
R.G.: Well, yes and no. Jackie was an actress. She would whisper. It was very clever. It was about not being obvious. She understood that this created mystery and this is what kept me pursuing her. She was the ideal subject because she didn’t stop and pose and make it easy.
WWD: So you loved her because she wouldn’t stop for you?
R.G.: That’s right. That’s ideal. I do not want them to stop and pose. That picture is the same as yesterday’s and usually it’s not a genuine smile. It’s a phony smile they give you to get rid of you.
WWD: Do you think your other subjects liked you? Would any of them call you a friend?
R.G.: Oh, yes. Lauren Hutton was number one. She even said she liked me more than Dick Avedon. Andy Warhol called me his favorite photographer. In fact, I think Jackie loved it. For instance, after she came out of the 21 club one night, she grabs me by the wrist — this was the only time she touched me — and then pushed me against the limousine and she said, ‘You’ve been hunting me for three months now.’ Not mad at all. She was whispering. I was surprised that she even talked to me. So she loved being pursued.
WWD: Looking back at the Kennedy era, do you find them at all disappointing?
R.G.: Yes, I believe they are spoiled. It goes with the territory. The rich and famous have it easy. Easy money, no motivation. I’m from an Italian-American family with five children. I had to yell to be heard. I never saw a dentist until I was 14. I earned my own money delivering groceries for $8 a week and I gave that money to my mother and kept the tips and saved enough money to go see a dentist. This makes a person motivated and appreciate work. And not just as a photographer. I built that garden out there. I do masonry work and I’m better than the professionals. A brick cracks, it needs mortar, but I don’t use that. I use poxy. It’s plastic. It’s stronger. It doesn’t crack. I do things better.