Spotlight on a self-declared bandit
Ron Gallella is considered the most controversial celebrity photographer in the United States. Newsweek heralded him ‘Paparazzo Extraordinaire’, Miami Herald News spoke of the ‘Paparazzi Superstar’. Galella, by way of his photos of celebrity nightlife, has himself grown into a popular culture icon.
On April 26, 1977, the doors of Studio 54 opened. It quickly became the most famous nightclub in the world. The likes of Andy Warhol, Elizabeth Taylor, Liza Minnelli,Grace ‘Nightclubbing’ Jones, Madonna, Diana Von Furstenburg, Mick and Bianca Jagger, Keith Richards, Truman Capote, Gloria Vanderbilt, Dolly Parton, Brooke Shields, Cher, Raquel Welch, David Bowie, Arnold Schwartzenegger, Michael Jackson, John Belushi, and hundreds of other celebrities graced it’s dancefloor. The strictly elite entrance policy led to lengthy queues at the door, which, in turn, increased it’s desirability and exclusivity. Under the flamboyant direction of the owners, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, Studio 54 was the place to be. Once inside the atmosphere was reminiscent of a Hollywood film set, brimming with glamour and extravagance. Strobe lights and smoke machines helped the guests to forget themselves and let go. Celebrities rubbed shoulders with celebrities, observed and registered by the camera of ‘Paparazzi Extraordinaire’ Ron Galella.
After Studio 54 first opened, Ron Galella was always on the scene, making sure he captured the highs and the lows. This paparazzo always got his picture: Powerful and candid images of celebrities going wild, losing their inhibitions. ‘Godfather of the American paparazzi, Galella captured the extravagant nightlife of the New York jet set. Paparazzo: the wrong man, in the right place, who - at the least photogenic moment - always gets his picture. Ron Galella was refused entry to Studio 54 only on two occasions. The fine line between public and private remained a delicate balancing act as Studio 54 and it’s glitterati were co-erced by the effect that ‘exposure’ had on their reputations. During this period Galella suffered from the same ‘social disease’ as the jet set of the 70’s and 80’s: afraid to miss anything, he burnt the wick at both ends. Meanwhile the celebrities wanted his guts for garters. For Galella it was a game. “Let’s say I cover a première, red carpet. That’s not paparazzi. After the première there’s a private party. No press allowed and I sneak in. That’s paparazzi. In other words: I’m creating another photo opportunity. I’m a bandit. I’m stealing pictures. Unofficial,unauthorized. That’s paparazzi.”
From hospital to court
June 1973, New York City’s Chinatown: Marlon Brando punched Galella in the jaw knocking out five of his teeth. It was a $ 40,000.00 punch settled out of court. The following day Brando was hospitalized with an infected right hand and five scars on his knuckles mark the occasion to this day. One year later, Galella, donning a football helmet, confronted Brando at a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria. This became Ron’s most famous picture of himself. Galella was later caught at Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor’s swimming pool in Cuernavaca (Mexico). First, the body guards confiscated his roll of 500 photos, then they gave him a kicking that landed him in hospital.
He has been counter-sued by Jacqueline Onassis in 1972: Galella versus Onassis, an unprecedented twenty-six day trial whereby the courts upheld his right to photograph her at a distance of twenty-five feet. John and Caroline at thirty feet. Nevertheless, Galella was able to make his most special photos from this distance. Not 100% sharp, we see Jackie O. in the grainy photograph looking into the lens, her natural elegance to boot. In 1982, Jacqueline Onassis sued Ron for breaking the twenty-five foot injunction on four different occasions. He pleaded guilty, but pointed out that she was always smiling into the camera and didn’t seem to mind being photographed from six or eight feet. He avoided a $120,000.00 fine and seven years in jail when a deal was made whereby Ron surrendered his right to photograph Jackie, Caroline and John forever.
Galella currently writes books. Later this year his new book ‘No Pictures’ comes out. He doesn’t miss his days as a paparazzi photographer. According to Ron, “Paparazzi photography now is pretty sick. When I did it, it was more sane, more one-to-one. More civilized, not the gangbang like it is today. And then there’s citizen’s journalism. Everybody with a cellphone acts like paparazzi. They have access, to events that even professionals can’t go to. For instance a big wedding like Tom Cruise’s. The invited guests can have their little cameras and shoot them where the professionals cannot... They do paparazzi. The business quickly changed. I don’t miss it.”
The man behind the camera
Native New Yorker Ron Galella (1931) received a professional arts degree in photojournalism from the Art Centre College of Design in Los Angeles, California. He started out as an Air Force photographer during the Korean War before becoming a freelance and magazine photographer in 1955. His first spread was four pages for Show Magazine in 1967 entitled, ‘He Shoots the Stars. The Man Behind the Camera…’ Magazines like Life, The New York Times, People, The Star and Vanity Fair followed suit. Galella: “My passion is to show the world the stars it celebrates in the natural and spontaneous moods that only paparazzo photo journalism can capture. I am interested in printing onto film what is real.”
© Pim Milo, 2008