FULL COURT PRESS
Byline: Rose Apodaca-Jones
BEVERLY HILLS — When pioneering paparazzo Ron Galella steps into the Gucci store on Rodeo Drive Wednesday night, he’ll be feted by Diane Keaton, Mariel Hemingway, Dustin Hoffman and other beautiful people he’s surreptitiously caught on film over his oft-notorious, five-decade career.
The irony of it all doesn’t escape him.
In fact, the 71-year-old photographer, who shares a well-known legal case with Jackie Onassis (the object of his incessant documenting) and is widely credited (or blamed) with conspiring to cultivate the culture of celebrity, now finds himself at the center of the fame game.
His largest and first museum retrospective, featuring about 300 images, opens June 16 at the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh. It’s an appropriate starting point for the show, which organizers hope will travel, considering Warhol’s affinity for Galella; he regarded him as his favorite photographer for “being in the right place at the wrong time.”
The Gucci-sponsored party here Wednesday, meanwhile, marks the release of the definitive compendium of his celebrity images, “The Photographs of Ron Galella.” Three years in the making, editor Steven Bluttal paired up with Los Angeles boutique publishing house Greybull Press to produce what is essentially an art photography book. Keaton, who appears in a 1976 snapshot at the Academy Awards, penned the foreword. Also featured are a conversation between Glenn O’Brien and Galella, and an introduction by Tom Ford, in town to personally host the event.
“My initial reaction was to pass on any involvement,” said Ford. “I knew Ron Galella’s photographs, but I also knew they were controversial. The impact of his guerrilla tactics as many considered them is indisputable. We can hardly imagine the media today without celebrity lifestyle shots and behind-the-scenes reportage.”
The two will meet for the first time at the party. “I admire his direct approach to my book,” said Galella. “It was uncluttered, honest. I was really flattered.”
Galella and his wife of 23 years, Betty, will arrive draped in Gucci, having had their fittings at the Fifth Avenue door last week. “We’d just missed Elton John,” he lamented Thursday by phone from the couple’s New Jersey home, which doubles as his studio and archival library.
Of the 180 black-and-white and 16 color images featured in the coffee-table tome, it doesn’t appear Galella missed many opportunities with his camera. There goes Bette Davis, a black-gloved hand not quite blocking her face at a 1974 Tony Awards rehearsal. Warhol inhaling a hot dog in 1977. David Bowie looking devilishly joyful at “The Elephant Man” premiere in 1980. Henry Kissinger looking up from his New York Post aboard a plane in 1979.
Then there are the Jackie photos. Fifteen of them in all. They appear intermittently, threading the collection of subjects who, in most cases, are linked only by their public exposure. If you mattered enough to be on the opposite end of Galella’s lens, you must be someone.
“I like the way [the book editors] did it, where they show a few celebrities and then Jackie,” Galella said. “She was an ideal subject for me because I like candid shots of people on the move, doing things. She never stopped and posed. It was a challenge to pursue her. She was like a deer always running.”
His most photographed prey served as subject and namesake for his first book, the 1974 quasi-autobiographical “Jacqueline,” in which he “gives away” his secrets to capturing celebrities during unofficial moments. It was followed in 1976 with “Off Guard: A Paparazzo’s View of the Beautiful People,” which didn’t leave the icon out.
His fascination with Jackie O led to two legal battles, including the landmark 1972 case, which resulted in the relentless cameraman keeping his distance.
“We were in court 26 days and she appeared 20 of those days,” he recalled, obviously relishing the memory. “In the first case, the judge was appointed by President Kennedy, so I had no way of winning. He wouldn’t even let me walk within 100 yards of her apartment. All this was eventually appealed and I was able to photograph her at 25 feet.” Every picture has its story and Galella recalls them in detail. He offers the street corner, the weather, the name of a Secret Service agent who threatened to take his film or a limo driver who spilled his client’s itinerary.
The Bronx-born maverick learned to work a camera as a ground and aerial photographer for the Air Force during the Korean War. He also found time to snap the likes of bandleader Louis Prima and other performers who’d come through the base. But it was in California, where he attended the Art Center College of Design on the GI Bill as a photojournalism major, that he learned the tricks of his trade and honed an eye for framing and cropping that distinguishes much of his best work from those of his peers.
“I would crash big premieres I wasn’t authorized to be at, but I acted like a pro and got in. There I’d get to shoot all these glamorous stars — Frank Sinatra, William Holden, Lucille Ball.” He even shot 8-mm. film on his adventures in early Hollywood. “In those days, it was very easy to crash parties. It’s not like today.”
Not that it’s always been as easy as sliding into the Plaza’s elevator with Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, their lawyer and publicist — and ending up with photographs of Taylor and her dog. When he tried to capture the couple during the Mexico filming of “Hammersmith is Out,” he was duly treated to the “protection” of the set crew. “They beat me up and the police just watched.”
He was also at the receiving end of Marlon Brando’s right fist on a dusky evening in New York’s Chinatown 30 years ago. “Five teeth, blood gushing. I put a handkerchief in my mouth and walked to the hospital,” he enthused. He responded by orchestrating friend Paul Schmulbach to snap him, in a football helmet, going for another try at photographing the actor.
Those were, evidently, the days. The turning point for celebrity photographers, Galella believes, is not the death of Princess Diana — in which his Onassis cases have been cited — but the 1980 assassination of John Lennon, and the attempt on then-president Ronald Reagan.
“There’s less freedom in photographing celebrities now. There’s more control now from all 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.”
The competition, of course, has increased. But Galella has met the demand with his own agency.
And, as absurd as it might sound, he believes the ethics among celebrity photographers have all but disappeared. “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 will, however, walk onto a neighbor’s with as little as a gardener’s blessing.
CHILD’S PLAY: “This is the best place in the store,” laughed Jennifer Creel as she admired an overflowing dessert table stacked two-feet high with cookies, brownies and chocolates at FAO Schwarz’s annual Bunny Hop, which raised $220,000 for Memorial Sloan-Kettering. “Why would anyone want to leave?”
Creel’s words turned out to be prophetic. At the 9 p.m. closing time, not one of the 500 children who roamed the toy store was prepared to pass up the goodies and carnival attractions (face painting and cookie decorating tables, hot dog stands and Radio City Rockettes) in favor of that witching hour: bedtime.
Tama Janowitz’s daughter Willow stalled by inquiring about the vet beauty center toy, which was near the door. “It’s only 20 bucks marked down from 100!” pointed out the elder Janowitz, who bypassed the toy for the goody bag line.
Debbie Bancroft and Patricia Duff, their children in tow, were sidelined by the jelly bean counting table, while Helen Schifter helped her daughter, Storey, string together a giant licorice whip candy necklace.
“My son’s somewhere in here,” said Karen Groos, peering into the crowd expectantly.
Angela Mariani had a similar problem. “My son was by the Brio train,” she said. “Has anyone seen a little caveman?”