“Bette Davis, Liz Taylor. They earned their fame because they were talented, before studios trained stars. Today they are mediocre. That’s what has diluted fame.”
Ron Galella would know. The celebrated yet much-maligned New York City paparazzo has made a career selling photos of the stars.
Smash His Camera, a film about the celebrity photographer, just premiered at the London Film Festival. The documentary focuses on the early ’70s trial in which Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his chief subject throughout his career and he her nemesis, successfully brought a restraining order against him. With his ever-present camera strapped around his neck, the Bronx native, 79, made an appearance at the screening and took a few minutes out for this rare one-on-one interview…
“Jackie made me a celebrity. I even thanked her with the first book,” says an earnest Galella, recounting the lengths he went to take street snaps of the 20th-century icon. “When it came out I gave her the book—to her doorman, of course. And years later, before she died an artist delivered a painting and he noticed my book on her library shelf. So, she didn’t throw it out. She didn’t hate it that much.”
Loitering with camera in tow all the way through the Studio 54 era, Galella photographed everyone from Grace Kelly to Grace Jones. Some of them willingly vamped for the camera, others tried to smash it. The title of the film was Jackie O’s instruction to one of her handlers when Galella attempted to take shots of her riding in Central Park with JFK Jr. In 1973, Marlon Brando went as far as to punch Galella outside of a Chinatown restaurant, breaking his jaw and knocking out five of his teeth.
Today it’s hard to place Galella’s work. The candid images, which ran mostly in tabloids, have been transformed into countless art exhibitions, purchased by collectors, and packaged into coffee table books. “I have my ninth book coming out next spring. But more than anything, my pictures selling in galleries I feel made me an artist,” says Galella.
As for his take on the pap profession today, even the original stalkerazzo is annoyed. “I had good taste. I never liked to show the stars look negative,” Galella insists, explaining the purpose of his photography was to capture celebrities in non-celebrity situations. “To me the beauty is really in their face, or their gestures. That’s what I loved. That’s beauty. Look at my favorite picture of Jackie. No makeup, no hairdo, just her walking across the street. My Mona Lisa.”
Directed by Leon Gast, Smash His Camera won Best Director of a documentary at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently on a limited U.S. theatrical release, to be shown later on HBO.