Ron Galella: Paparazzo or Artist?

Can paparazzi photography be art? This is the question raised by two new exhibitions of work by US ‘paparazzo extraordinaire’ Ron Galella, which are showing as part of this year’s PhotoEspaña festival

Can paparazzi photography be art? This is the question raised by two new exhibitions of work by US ‘paparazzo extraordinaire’ Ron Galella, which are showing as part of this year’s PhotoEspaña festival in Madrid…

The shows offer an expansive look at Galella’s archive, which includes images of just about every famous celebrity, musician or actress of the 1960s, 70s and 80s, the period when Galella’s career was at its height. Known as a forefather of modern paparazzi photography, his collection includes famous shots of Paul Newman, Mick Jagger, Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando, Elizabeth Taylor, and, most notoriously, Jackie Onassis, whom Galella pursued relentlessly for years, despite Onassis twice taking him to court for harassment.

The exhibitions at PhotoEspaña are shown across two very different venues, with each offering a different impression of Galella’s ‘art’. The first, at upmarket clothing store Loewe (which also sponsors both shows), is appropriately glossy. The images here capture famous figures such as Jagger and Jack Nicholson mugging for Galella’s camera, suggesting a cheerful collusion between the stars and the snapper. Everyone here looks beautiful, and (almost) everyone looks happy. The exceptions to the latter are the figures who helped in building Galella’s own fame: one image shows Richard Burton glowering into his lens, while another iconic shot (by another photographer) sees Marlon Brando striding forward with Galella himself in his wake, clad in a protective football helmet. Both Burton and Brando attacked Galella for his zealous pursuit of them, with Brando breaking his jaw and knocking out five of his teeth.

In the exhibition press conference, Galella, now 80, recounted such stories with glee, cheerfully proclaiming “he almost killed me!” while discussing Burton. He is clearly still enamoured by his subjects, and the personal fame that his interactions with them has brought, which culminated in last year’s HBO documentary, Smash His Camera, also showing at PhotoEspaña. For Galella, a perfect shot is one that captures a star in a natural pose: “I like the surprise,” he says. “Genuine expressons, real feeling, not posed pictures.” Despite this, the emphasis, in the Loewe exhibition at least, is all on beauty, and Galella appears keen to show the stars looking at their best, rather than trying catch them out. It is hard to imagine him attempting the ‘up skirt’ snapshots that today’s paps are so notorious for.

The second PhotoEspaña exhibition, at Círculo de Bellas Artes, offers a darker impression of Galella’s craft, however. While he may insist that he is different to the “pack” of celebrity photographers that exist today, the beginnings of the modern paparazzi style are apparent here. Images of stars at premieres or on movie sets are combined with more intrusive pictures: Julie Christie shot barefoot and unawares in a supermarket, and Jackie O captured fleeing alone across a park. The image of Galella as the charming friend to the stars slips away, to be replaced by the (undoubtedly more accurate) idea of him as a kind of stalker.

As to the work’s artistic merit, this is unclear. It is undoubtedly fascinating to view these images, both for the opportunity to peer at their famous subjects, and for Galella’s sharp framing. For those interested in the history of celebrity, they give an insight into a time before heavy PR presence, and heavy plastic surgery use (although a poignant pairing of shots of Michael Jackson pre and post his first series of nosejobs foreshadows the trend for manufactured beauty that was soon to come).

Viewing such photographs in a gallery allows them an impact separate to their appearance in a newspaper or celebrity magazine; we are invited to study them, and, in turn, ponder the role of the paparazzi in our media. The passing of time also plays its part – it is particularly fascinating to view these 30-year-old images now, with all our knowledge of what happened to the famous people within them. Would an exhibition of today’s stars prove as intriguing? Possibly, if it is sharply curated. Lindsay Lohan recently made an appearance in a Richard Phillips film, and Alison Jackson’s staged tabloid images have an enduring appeal. Perhaps a gallery exhibition of snatched shots of Ryan Giggs or Britney Spears may not be as incongruous or unlikely as we might once have thought.

Both Ron Galella exhibitions will be on at PhotoEspaña until July 17: more info is at phe.es. A full review of the festival will appear in the July edition of Creative Review.

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