For many in media and intellectual circles, the paparazzi—those camera-wielding misfits who know no boundaries—are seen not only as money-grubbing parasites of culture but as potentially one reason why in-depth reporting has been sidelined by celebrity news. After all, the time when “serious” news outlets eschewed celebrity gossip has gone by faster than O.J.’s white Bronco. This is due, in no small part, to a decentralization of the media environment, especially concerning the once mighty News of the World (which is due, of course, to that Internet thing). These days, celebrity news and the paparazzi that create it hold an increasingly powerful—and monetized—spot in our media landscape. For example, even the Huffington Post has found, to its benefit, that throwing some celebs in with its poignant political analysis does wonders.
But where did paparazzi come from? As noted in Leon Gast’s highly entertaining Smash His Camera, the term “paparazzi” came from one of the characters in the film La Dolce Vita. But more to the point, it was Ron Galella, the focus of the film, who was the trailblazer. Galella, in many ways, is the caricature that erudite critics would expect: he’s brash, obnoxious, unrelenting, and garish in his tastes (he has a penchant for painting fake plants to put in this New Jersey “garden”). But a tour of his basement archive also reveals that he that has boxes of photos of everyone from Jackie O. and Sinatra to the Village People and Michael Jackson, from Angelina Jolie and Liz Taylor to the Beastie Boys and Brando. In short, there are millions of photos of people who are a prominent and an undeniable part of American culture—and that is worth something that is not only monetary. The great swath of celebrity history he has documented has also put him in the realm of art as he publishes large format books, is collected by seemingly high-end aggregators, and is even recognized by MoMA and the venerable Chuck Close.
Smash His Camera also goes in-depth regarding Galella’s infatuation with Jackie O. whom he stalked and tussled with throughout nearly the last half of the 20th century. At one point she sued him in a high-profile court case that resulted in a restraining order on Galella. Yet Galella did capture some of the most enduring photographs of Jackie, even as he became the despised face of a “new” kind of photography. Another famous incident portrayed with effective humor in the film is when Galella found Marlon Brando who, after a rare appearance on the Dick Cavett show, went downtown with the host. Galella intercepted and the night ended with Brando’s fist removing several teeth from Galella’s jaw. Brando, of course, settled out of court.
These days, for the uninitiated, it might be surprising to see the amount of photos in magazines like In Touch, OK, Star, and many others where it’s not just red carpet photos (though there’s a lot of that) but loads of unflattering photos of mostly B-rate celebs on the beach or in extreme close-up, replete with snarky comments about how their abs or thighs are flabby, or skin or hair is not up to snuff. If that’s what Galella partly spawned, then he does deserve credit. But the fact also remains that the Celebrity-Industrial Complex has grown, largely filling the vacuum that media deregulation spawned. And celebrities and their handlers are hardly innocent in the matter. Today Brangelina’s leg warts or Tom Cruise’s tonsillitis demand attention and, unlike during most of Galella’s career, red carpets these days are bathed with a thousand suns of camera flashes while a legion of photographers go to insane lengths to get that one “money shot.” But while celebs come and go, those who photograph them are hardly the only master villains. As Smash His Camera artfully portrays, it’s not really individuals who are to blame—it’s the media environment that sustains them.