Dubbed ‘The Godfather of paparazzi culture’, Ron Galella is a living legend, whose lens has got him into serious trouble and serious fame. You’re nobody ’till somebody snaps you.
The figures in front of the cameras, behind the dark glasses and blacked-out windows, mourning (or revelling in) the loss of their private lives, have been splashed about for our entertainment for decades. First flash then fame, Ron Galella is the most famous paparazzi photographer in the world and has been a major influence on the way the 21st century understands and obsesses over celebrity culture. Sued by Jackie Onassis, punched in the face by Marlon Brando and slung in a Mexican jail, he’s fought hard for our voyeuristic pleasure. Here’s a man with many stories to tell – stories luxury goods giant Loewe are showcasing through a sponsored retrospective of Galella’s iconic photographs at PhotoEspaña, Madrid’s international festival of photography and visual arts.
Launching tonight, the Loewe/Galella exhibition features 109 photographs selected from Galella’s enormous archive, exhibited between Loewe’s GranVia store and the Picasso space at the Circulo de Bellas Artes de Madrid. Galella began photographing for magazines such as Time, Rolling Stone, Vogue and Vanity Fair from the early 60s, snapping the glitterati at a time when they were most untouchable. From Sophia Loren to Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger to Elizabeth Taylor, Galella, now 78, has witnessed first-hand (and got the scars to prove it) the immortalised images that have permeated popular culture. i-D Online had the pleasure of asking him a few questions about his most outrageous subject, his greatest lesson learned and his predictions for the future.
What attracted you to working with Loewe? In the same way that we have Barneys in NYC where I did a display previously, I see it as a high quality brand. I believe that people are looking for more high quality products such as those that Loewe delivers.
People are much more accustomed to street photographers and paparazzi now, they’ve stopped putting their hands in front of the camera, why do you think their reactions have changed? My book ‘No Pictures’ shows these types of reactions by celebrities when I photographed them. Since I’m somewhat famous, they will often react that way, and thereby gain a little more publicity, but it wasn’t always sincere. Only Greta Garbo was sincere when she shielded her face with a handkerchief and another time with an umbrella. I believe today that most celebrities have stopped doing that because they are bombarded by gangs of paparazzi night and day, so they’d rather just ignore them. Today, by giving the paparazzi more attention it propagates more picture-taking. Enough is enough!
Tell us about the longest lens you’ve ever used… The longest lens I’ve used is a 500mm lens to photograph President Nixon and his wife in San Clemente, California. I used a 300mm lens in London on the Thames to capture Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton aboard their yacht.
What’s the biggest lesson you have learnt in your career? I think the biggest lesson is getting information as to where the celebrities are — hotels, theatres, events. Since I have a great passion for shooting, I’ve gone without eating. Once while I was waiting for John Lennon at the Troubadour Cafe in Beverly Hills, I was so hungry I went across the street to eat at Cafe Figora. My hunger cost me seeing Lennon in a famous fight with other photographers!
Who in your opinion are the all time great photographers? Henri Cartier-Bresson, who like me, knew it was about timing when to shoot. Eugene W. Smith with his essays such as Country Doctor (Life Magazine), where he was able to capture the emotion on a doctor’s face. Irving Penn whose still-life images, compositions, and colours created great art.
Who is the most outrageous character you’ve ever snapped? I think it’s Sean Penn, when he spat at me and punched another photographer Vinnie Zufante, just as Marlon Brando did to me in Chinatown. The most positive character is Dustin Hoffman, who without asking will do unusual things such as feeding a dog in Central Park, shaving whilst getting into his limo, dancing with his tall wife while looking up at her, and once even dancing with and kissing me. Salvador Dali would always give various expressions and gestures and ham it up for the camera too.
What can you tell about someone by the way they dress and behave in front of the camera? The way people dress and behave on camera reflects their taste I think. Most people have bad taste, mixing patterns over patterns. A man for instance should not wear a plaid jacket with a busy shirt and tie. Class means wearing a solid colour jacket and shirt with only the tie having a pattern on it, “less is more”, moderation is the lesson. As for women’s clothes I think they should be suggestive but mysterious, leaving something to the imagination is sexy and glamorous.
What are your predictions for the future? I predict that many stars will continue to market their sex tapes. We live in an image-obsessed world where everything is over-exposed thanks to the paparazzi! In spite of the internet, I think magazines and newspapers will survive because TV only gives headline news. You need papers like the New York Times to give the whole news. There’s nothing like a great still photo, which I will tear out of newspapers and magazines. This is how you develop taste, it’s all in our minds and imagination. Beauty, that has meaning for me. We see too much vulgarity.
PhotoEspaña runs through June and July.
Photography courtesy of Ron Galella