Maclean’s Interview: Ron Galella

Paparazzo Ron Galella talks with Kate Fillion about Madonna, Jackie O, Britney and why stars deserve the paparazzi

Ron Galella

Q: You’re considered the first American paparazzo. What was the first photo you took that you’d characterize as a paparazzi shot?

A: I would say my first pictures of Jackie [Onassis] in May 1967. She came to the Wildenstein gallery [in New York] and it was impossible to get good pictures, it was too crowded, so I followed her back to her apartment, which is how I got candids of her coming out of the limo. There was no interference, no bodyguards, no crowds.

Q: Why weren’t other photographers already following celebrities to try to get those kinds of shots?

A: Most of the photographers were staffers on the newspapers and magazines, and only went out on assignments, to events. As a freelancer, you can’t wait for assignments— you’ll starve. Paparazzi photography is not about events. It’s about creating another photo op: at their apartment after the event, perhaps, or no event at all, you just follow someone going to dinner.

Q: At first, were magazines reluctant to buy those kinds of pictures?

A: They craved those pictures. Newsweek, Time, Life, the National Enquirer, but also the fan magazines—there were 15 or 20 of them, like Photoplay and Modern Screen—were all competing for pictures.

Q: How early on was it possible to make a good living doing this?

A: I was doing good by 1967. I made half my living off Jackie. I was able to focus on her because I was not preoccupied with a girlfriend, and I was not married yet, so I was free to go out and it was an adventure to follow her. I was a marathon man, a workaholic. I’d develop the pictures at night, sometimes until three in the morning, then I’d get up, sell them right off the contact sheets, and start over again.

Q: How do you think your photos of stars measure up to those of, say, Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz?

A: Studio photographers like Avedon do their work by appointment, and they can get better lighting and better backgrounds, but they may not get the spontaneity I get.

Q: Whose pictures do you like better?

A: I like mine better. Not technically, theirs are better technically in terms of lighting and so on, but mine capture the fleeting expression you get when stars are themselves. You see, stars are usually acting. But I get them in their environment, when they’re not acting, they’re themselves. I don’t want them looking in my camera, I want them doing something, talking to each other, being themselves. That’s what I capture, their realistic expressions rather than poses.

Q: It looks like dangerous work, judging by the number of shots in your new book, No Pictures, of stars and bodyguards trying to slug you or other photographers. Were you ever scared?

A: Not really. When Brando hit me, it was a surprise, I never saw the punch, I was looking at Dick Cavett. To this day I don’t know why he did it. I followed Brando and Cavett to Chinatown [in New York], they were going out to dinner, and took about 10 shots. Brando then called me over and says, “What else do you want that you don’t already have?” I looked at Cavett, who knew me, and said, “Well, how about a shot without the sunglasses?” Before he could answer, Brando just slugged me, knocked five teeth out of my lower jaw. I stuck a handkerchief in my mouth and drove to Bellevue to get stitched up. The next day, a fan got a picture of Brando coming out of his hotel, his hand bandaged and swollen from infection from the bacteria from my teeth. He was in the hospital three days, recovering. I won an out-of-court settlement of $40,000, but a third of that went to the lawyers and then the rest I spent repairing my teeth, it took three tries to get it right, and I had nothing left over. A year later, when Brando had a press conference, I came prepared with a football helmet.

Q: Which star or celebrity did you most enjoy photographing?

A: Number one was Jackie, only because she didn’t pose, you see. If somebody stops and poses, you have to take the picture, say thank you and leave. If they don’t stop and pose, you don’t feel no guilt then. You can go on and on and on [shooting].

Q: Any celebrities you actually came to dislike?

A: Sean Penn, he’s a bad boy. And Richard Burton, he was the worst, worse even than Brando.

Q: What’s it like to photograph Madonna?

A: Madonna is pretty natural, she doesn’t run. See, most of the stars want publicity. Of course they want to control it, they want to be ready, but most stars like to be photographed. Most of them are bluffing when they say “No pictures!” They’re just pretending they don’t like it. The only celebrity I would say was very sincere was Greta Garbo.

Q: Whose photo is in your book. Didn’t you feel bad photographing this elderly woman, whose clothes suggest she was trying to remain anonymous, holding a Kleenex up to cover her face? She was begging you to go away.

A: I did go away.

Q: But you printed the photo. Didn’t your conscience have even a twinge?

A: Not really. As a photographer, anything rare, you want. I understand she doesn’t want it, but I could’ve photographed her all the way to her door and I didn’t. I stopped after four or five pictures.

Q: Do you respect a star more who genuinely doesn’t want publicity?

A: Yes. I get the picture and leave, I don’t keep photographing for blocks and blocks, I’m not sadistic. Here’s where I got one-up on them: I pre-focus my camera, this has been my technique. I see somebody and surprise them, shoot fast, then they say, “No pictures!” And I leave. But I already got one or two, you see. That’s how you win. Rarely do I call a star’s name. I hate doing that, like you’re begging for a picture.

Q: If a person who wasn’t famous asked you to stop shooting, would you go ahead?

A: No. I usually respect their wishes.

Q: Do you have an ethical code, a line you won’t cross to get a photo?

A: I do not go on their property. I got pictures of Doris Day in her bikini, with her dogs, but I was on the adjacent property, the gardener said it was okay, and I shot through the hedges with a long lens.

Q: In your book you say, “Paparazzi photography as I know it is over.” Explain what you mean.

A: The three big icons were Jackie, Liz Taylor and Diana [Princess of Wales], they drew paparazzi from around the world. They’re gone—except for Liz, though she don’t get out much.

Q: It’s over because the stars aren’t as big?

A: Yes. Today we have featherweights: Britney Spears, Lindsay Lohan, people who rely more on showing their sexiness and crazy things that they do. They’re not the stars of yesteryear, who earned their celebrity with talent.

Q: Today the focus seems to be making them look as idiotic as possible.

A: Right. I didn’t go for that. I was seeking glamour, realistically. You could look beautiful with your expressions, without makeup. I was concentrating more on the face, the hand gestures, than on the bad things. The paparazzi years ago, in Fellini’s time in Rome, they provoked stars to make an incident so they could sell the pictures. It’s similar today, especially in Los Angeles. They want the star to fall down or fight, because incidents like that sell the pictures.

Q: Some of the stars you photograph frequently, like Warren Beatty, actually seem to mug for the camera.

A: Yes. He liked me a lot. He said, “You’re getting more publicity than the stars!”

Q: You’ve got a lot of pictures of Jackie running away from you, or yelling at you. Did it bother you that she didn’t like you?

A: I think she’s a hypocrite. I think she liked me.

Q: What makes you think that?

A: One night, she was at 21 in New York, and she came out and grabbed my wrist, pinned me with her elbow against the limousine, and said in that low voice, “You’ve been hunting me for three months now.” This was early on. I said, “Yes, yes.” I was surprised. To me, she’s saying she liked to be pursued.

Q: I would take it the exact opposite way, especially since she subsequently took you to court and won an injunction that you couldn’t take photos within 25 feet of her and 30 feet of her children.

A: Well, it’s hard to understand Jackie. Here’s the way it went. In 1968 I got pictures of Jackie and John Jr. on bikes. She don’t like the children to be photographed, she wants them to lead a private, normal life.

Q: Didn’t you respect that? A: No. I think it’s a public park, she’s a public person. And people have a right to know what John Jr. looks like.

Q: We’re talking about a widow whose husband and brother-in-law were assassinated, who had good reason to fear for her children’s lives.

A: Well, in her mind maybe that’s true, but it’s not. Even in court, she denied she’s a public figure. Her lawyer asked, “Is there public interest in you?” She said, “No. They don’t care about me.” What she didn’t understand is that once you’re a celebrity, a First Lady, you can’t turn it off. You’re not a machine. Once a celebrity, always a celebrity.

Q: To me, she doesn’t sound like a person who in any way secretly wanted you to photograph her.

A: Well, I dated one of her maids, and she said Jackie had a whole closet full of books of press clippings, and I caught her three times at least, buying magazines where she’s in it.

Q: Did you date the maid to get information about Jackie?

A: I liked the maid, but I did it more for information. And actually, one day the maid and I were talking in front of the building, and Jackie appeared. The next day she was fired. I feel bad about that.

Q: Did you dump her right after?

A: More or less, yeah. I wasn’t that interested in her.

Q: So what contribution do you think your photography has made to society?

A: I’ve got a record of what people are or were, and to me, it’s a more truthful, realistic account than contrived, posed pictures.

Q: I heard someone’s making a documentary about you. Did you find that invasive, being followed around?

A: No. I like it. See, it’s normal for people to be photographed. People like seeing their name in print, or hearing their name. It’s music! It makes them feel important, and people like to feel important. That’s the normal, natural way of humanity. And a lot of these celebrities who say, “No pictures,” they’re doing it for a game. When they say they’re private, they get more publicity, more interest, and they create more mystery. Jackie was smart. She never gave interviews, it was very hard to get one. And I’m lucky because she made my name famous.

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