Icons / August 2017

Ron Galella: Shooting Stars

‘The King of the Paparazzi’ risked life and limb to capture candid, unposed (and often unwilling) portraits of iconic 20th century celebrities.

Ron Galella backstage at a Leif Garrett concert Houston, Texas, 1978. Photo by Brad Elterman/FilmMagic/Getty Images.

An intrusive tabloid photographer character from Fellini’s 1960 classic La Dolce Vita called ‘Paparazzo’ (which the director thought suggested an irritating, buzzing mosquito) may have given this breed of sneaky snappers their moniker. But there’s another Italian name synonymous with devious, in-your-face celebrity photography: Galella. Ron Galella.

Dubbed “the Godfather of the US paparazzi culture” by Time magazine and described by Harper’s Bazaar as “the most controversial paparazzo of all time”, Bronx born-and-bred Galella first took up the camera while serving for five years as a US Air Force photographer during the Korean War. Subsequently honing his craft at the Art Centre College of Design in Los Angeles, Galella supported his studies by shooting actors arriving at Hollywood premieres and events, selling the images for a few dollars a pop to magazines and newspapers.

Returning to New York after he graduated, Galella continued to pursue the occupation that had kept him in beer money during his college years. Unable to afford a professional set-up, necessity proved to be the mother of invention. “I came back to my father’s house in the Bronx. I didn’t have money for a studio,” Galella told Vanity Fair in 2015. “So the streets became my studio. I built a photo lab in my father’s basement, and I started doing something that wasn’t being done, which was capturing spontaneity. Other photographers would do posed and well-lit pictures. I captured celebrities in their environments: at parties, in airports, when they were not aware of the photographer or the camera. This was the real them. That’s what photojournalism is about.”

Though today paps are commonly thought of as artless parasites, snatching grainy, pixelated telephoto pictures of dangling celebrity appendages and post-baby bods, Galella said, “I’ve always felt that I’m more than a paparazzo,” and considers his life’s work legitimate photojournalism: “that’s what I got a degree (in) … I worked hard at my craft, too … To me, photography was an art. It’s the modern art of today. It’s the magic medium.”

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Christian Barker

Christian Barker is The Rake's Asia editor-at-large, a frequent contributor to this site, and an enthusiastic consumer of fine whiskies, sashimi and classic disco music - ideally in unison.