Celebrity photographer Ron Galella, whose controversial, indomitable style enthralled and appalled in equal measures, died Sunday at his home in Montville, N.J., at the age of 91.
His funeral is scheduled for 10 a.m. on Thursday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York, and a wake is being held Tuesday and Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel. Burial services will be held following the mass at Woodlawn cemetery.
Starting out in the mid-’60s, when The National Enquirer and fan magazines provided the only celebrity-centric coverage, Galella made a career of hounding the affluent and elegant, actors, musicians, political figures and more. As the decades wore on and the paparazzi chase intensified, he wound up being sued by Jackie Kennedy, beaten up by Marlon Brando and dodging a trash can hurled at him by the restaurateur Elaine Kaufman and ousted from her Upper East Side celebrity hangout. His obsession with Kennedy led to two legal battles, including a landmark 1972 case that resulted in a restraining order against him.
Despite his many dust-ups, Galella told WWD in 2012, “I’m trying to think of someone I’d like to apologize to, but I really can’t think of a particular incident. I usually wait for people to swallow their food. Most of the time I’m a gentleman.”
That said, with his six-foot-tall athletic frame and protruding lower lip, Galella could be a daunting figure. Kennedy was “the ideal subject because she didn’t stop to pose and make it easy,” Galella once told WWD.
Before the release of his book “Jacqueline,” he said in a 1974 interview with WWD, “My big disadvantage is I have my camera around my neck. Daddy O’s bodyguard almost strangled me with the strap once,” an apparent reference to Kennedy’s second husband Aristotle Onassis.
In his decades-long career, the photographer published 22 books including “Jackie: My Obsession” and “Disco Years,” and his work is part of permanent collections at the Museum of Modern Art, the Tate Modern in London and the Helmut Newton Foundation Museum of Photography in Berlin. He also was the subject of the documentary “Smash His Camera.”
Galella said he didn’t like shooting funerals and Phil Ramey’s photo of the body bag of Rock Hudson went “too far,” he once said. “When a celebrity doesn’t want any more photos, I leave. Usually. The game is to get them before they say that so you can do it.”
A self-described “positive person” on the lookout “for the beauty in life,” Galella once criticized a famous photograph of Elizabeth Taylor coming out of a hospital in what looked like a casket. He explained that he would rather photograph someone leaving a hospital being cured.
With his guerrilla-style tactics — crossing police barricades was at times all in a night’s work — the lensman captured such elusive celebrities as Bette Davis using one of her black-gloved hands to nearly shield her face during a 1974 Tony Awards rehearsal or former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger gazing up from his New York Post aboard a plane in 1979. Other subjects included Andy Warhol eating a hot dog in 1977 and David Bowie delighting in “The Elephant Man” premiere in 1980. While bribes were part of Galella’s trade, he claimed to never offer more than $10 per take in the ’70s to a doorman — “at a neighboring building to learn when a subject leaves their building and where they are headed.” Although he did date Kennedy’s maid at one point to gain intel, until Kennedy found out and fired her.
Galella was married for decades to Betty Lou Burke, who published his photos in Today is Sunday magazine. After meeting her in person for the first time in 1978, Galella vowed to marry her and did so five months later. She oversaw his photo agency until her death in 2017.
Photographer Patrick McMullan said Tuesday that Galella was “a celebrity hound long before the rest of the world caught up with him.” As a collector of some of Galella’s photographs, McMullan said, “If you look at some of his photographs in his books, there are things that he has that would never have been seen had he not been stalking people.”
Galella’s work had obsessional quality, “where he decided, ‘Oh, I like this person. I want to know more about them.’ He didn’t care that he crossed basic barriers. With the thing with Jackie [Kennedy], people would say, ‘How can he be so aggressive?’ But the thing about it was he was really driven. It was really an obsession in many ways that works, because he had a camera,” McMullan said. “What makes a great photograph is that it’s a defining moment. Everybody kind of knows that. But he really knew it when he got it. He really got turned on by getting the right thing.”
So much so that on occasion Galella protected his favorite subjects. “He knew when somebody was a true weirdo, and he was able to inform people that this is not the normal fan,” McMullan said. “Paparazzi is a whole different bag when it comes to photography. In many ways, it’s like war photography because you’re putting yourself in a place where a lot of people don’t want to be in to get something that may be relevant to the situation. In our celebrity-obsessed culture, seeing a person in an off-moment…he would hide behind a plant to get certain pictures. It was so nutty to us. But in the same respect, going to a war and taking pictures is also pretty nutty. It’s a similar kind of energy that is needed.”
Kennedy wasn’t the only nemesis that Galella encountered in his career. A day of trailing Brando ended with the actor punching him in the face and breaking his jaw. Galella later attested that the actor, who was walking with Dick Cavett at the time, never told him, “Get lost,” but asked, “What else do you want that you don’t already have?” Recalling that dusky evening in New York City’s Chinatown, Galella enthused to WWD in 2005, “Five teeth, blood gushing. I put a handkerchief to my mouth and walked to the hospital.”
In his true never-say-die style, Galella enlisted his friend Paul Schmulbach to snap him wearing a football helmet going for another try with Brando.
Photographer Jonathan Becker described Galella Tuesday as “a great observer with an undervalued body of work that resonated more with people of the working class. His confrontation with celebrity was theirs. Not privileged, he knew it. They recognized it.”
From Galella’s viewpoint, it wasn’t the death of Princess Diana but the 1980 murder of John Lennon and the attempted assassination of then-President Ronald Reagan that same year that halted all-bets-off celebrity photography.
“There’s less freedom in photographing celebrities now. There’s more control now from all of the handlers and from the celebrities themselves. There’s even less opportunity to get the candid photos because they’re always ready to look your way and flash you their best side,” Galella explained in a WWD interview.
Despite being known as “The Godfather of the paparazzi,” Galella didn’t feel he had any responsibility for the increasingly competitive profession. From his standpoint, it was due to the magazines paying high amounts of money for an exclusive take on celebrities.
“It’s the money motivating the paparazzi. I was never a money-motivated photographer. I loved photographing the world of celebrity,” he told WWD in 2012, adding that $5,000 was the most he ever got for a shot — a 1980 one of then-presidential candidate Ted Kennedy and that was a split between Star and Newsweek.
Raised in an Italian-American family with five siblings, Galella said he “had to yell to be heard.” His cabinetmaker father worked two jobs and his dressmaker mother was interested in glamour and fashion. Delivering groceries for $8 a week was his first job, and he gave that payout to his mother and saved the tips, enabling him to go to the dentist for the first time at the age of 14. “This makes a person motivated and appreciate work. And not just as a photographer,” he told WWD. “The rich and famous have it easy. Easy money, no motivation.”
The Bronx-born renegade learned to wield a camera during the Korean War as an Air Force ground and aerial photographer. He also shot the bandleader Louis Prima and other performers that cycled through the base. Galella honed his skills as a photojournalism major at California’s Art Center College of Design, where he mastered in framing and cropping, which later distinguished his work from others. By his own account, he crashed Hollywood premieres, acting like a pro to sail in without authorization. Unlike now when small brigades of earpiece-wearing and iPad-armed publicists greet each arrival before admittance, Galella could work around any situation to photograph Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, William Holden, Lauren Hutton and other glamorous stars.
So agile was he that he once slid into an elevator at The Plaza hotel with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, their lawyer and publicist — and exited with snaps of Taylor and her dog. However, another attempt to catch the powerhouse couple during the filming of “Hammersmith Is Out” in Mexico led to the set crew beating him up, as “the police just watched,” according to Galella, who was later jailed.
Graydon Carter, founder and editor of Air Mail, said Tuesday, “The thing about Ron that gets lost in all the talk of his street style, is that he was a superb photographer. He made people look great. And one of the best photos I’ve had taken — and I’m not an ideal subject — Ron snapped when I was on Bleecker rounding the corner onto Bank Street.”
In 2010, HBO aired and presented the debut of the documentary “Smash His Camera,” which was directed by Leon Gast. The film looked at both sides of Galella’s controversial story as he created some of the most iconic celebrity images of the modern era.
Sheila Nevins, then president of HBO Documentary Films, who is now executive producer at MTV Documentary Films, recalled Tuesday that Galella was “gracious, outrageous and fearless.”
“He had deep understanding that celebrities were just other people like ourselves whose names everyone knew. And so — they didn’t intimidate his curious aggressive camera,” said Nevins.
As the competitiveness of celebrity photography intensified and the payout climbed, Galella created his own agency. By the mid-2000s, the ethics of celebrity photography had all but vanished, he once said. “They do crazy things now. The European paparazzi are the craziest. They create a disturbance. I don’t do that. I don’t go on a celebrity’s property.”
He was, however, not above walking onto a neighbor’s lawn with as little as a gardener’s blessing to stake his subject.
As noted in the obituary that he wrote for himself, “P.S. If I’m not invited into the pearly gates of heaven, I just might try sneaking in.”
Galella is survived by his brother Vincent and 11 nieces and nephews.