May 25, 2022

Spy Bot-Updates

The Passionate of Travel

How Ron Galella, the ‘Godfather’ of Paparazzi, Captured Celebrity in a Flash

I consider myself a great photographer,” Ron Galella told Town and Country in 2019. “The greatest living photographer now,” he said, then thought a little more. “The most famous. Google who’s the best. They’ll say Ron Galella. I mean Avedon and Irving Penn were great photographers. But they’re dead.”

And now, so is Galella. The king of modern paparazzi photography has died, aged 91, of congestive heart failure. He is famed for his images of so many boldface names, including Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Madonna, Grace Jones, Donald Trump, Dustin Hoffman, Linda Evangelista, Andy Warhol, Mick Jagger, Elvis Presley, Ali McGraw, and so many more—celebrities posing, playing, and swirling in a very different era, as filtered and understood pre-internet.

The announcement of Gallela’s passing—he died on Saturday at home in Montville, New Jersey—came, in a quirk of timing, on the day of the Met Gala, the one beautiful-people event Galella would still photograph long past retirement age. He oversaw the publication of over 20 books of his work; Town and Country said he, and those employed by him, had taken over 3 million images since 1952. Newsweek once called him the “paparazzo extraordinaire”; Time and Vanity Fair “the godfather of US paparazzi culture.”

Tabloid images of celebrities—looking glamorous, rushing hither and thither—were Galella’s speciality, as he photographed them night and day, going about their errands and all dressed up, ready to party, or, like Bette Davis, on her way to lunch. He was unapologetically in their faces; in his gaze, they felt in motion, close up, not posed and safely at a distance.

In the Town and Country interview, Galella proudly celebrated his work, and denied accusations made by some of his subjects and critics that his mode of photographing celebrities amounted to stalking and harassment, and extremely distressing. Others were flattered, and played up to his roving, intrusive lens.

Marlon Brandon punched Gallela, who was pursuing him in New York’s Chinatown, in 1973, breaking his jaw. Jackie Onassis took him to court over his pursuit of her, leading to a judge ordering Galella to stay 25 feet away from her. He violated the order and was later threatened with jail, after which he never took another photo of Onassis again.

“Smash his camera,” Onassis once said, after Galella had photographed her with her then-young son John F. Kennedy Jr. Her words became the name of a 2010 documentary about him. “Why did I have an obsession with Jackie? I’ve analyzed it,” Galella told its makers. “I had no girlfriend. She was my girlfriend, in a way.” Galella maintained to Town and Country that Onassis liked to be pursued.

Onassis felt very differently. As conveyed in court testimony, Gallela’s pursuit of her and her children left her feeling “extremely agitated, upset, desperate…” One of her secret service agents told Town and Country that Onassis found Galella ‘repugnant” and “detested” him and his relentless intrusion. The death of Princess Diana in Paris in 1997, in a car being pursued by paparazzi, stripped its practitioners of any glamour they once had.

Etheleen Staley, who first showed Galella’s work at her Staley-Wise Gallery in 2008, told Town and Country, “I think Ron’s a guy that had no moral compass. He didn’t see anything wrong with pursuing somebody, hounding somebody, not being respectful of a person’s privacy. It just didn’t go into his head that you shouldn’t do that. I think that’s the secret of his success, that the boundaries that a lot of people feel didn’t occur to him.”

Time burnishes all, and so now Galella’s mostly black-and-white images look like classy artefacts of another time; there is a glamor to his pictures, a nostalgic bell of Studio 54-ish times of hedonism, where stardom was prized and the aura of celebrity more fixed than the slipstream of louder pretenders that have come to occupy its more porous echelons today. Later in his life, Galella became a celebrity himself, finally venerated by a world he had set out to document; he told WWD in 2014 that he made money by selling the gallery prints of his work.

“Today, the celebrities have changed, they’re more aware of the cameras,” Galella told WWD. “I like stars being themselves instead of posing where you get a phony expression.” Instead, captured by Galella, celebrities were caught in transit, or in the dash of life and mischief. Even now, long past, the photographs feel in a perennially clamorous, very fresh present tense. Tim Teeman; photo gallery by Kelly Caminero.

Mick Jagger and Jerry Hall, New York City, late 1970s.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

(L to R) Jackie Kennedy and Ron Galella. Title: Smash His Camera. Studio: Magnolia Pictures. Plot: A film centering on the life and work of Ron Galella that examines the nature and effect of paparazzi.

Ron Galella / Alamy

Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty and Donald Trump during Mike Tyson vs Michael Spinks Fight at Trump Plaza – June 27, 1988 at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, New Jersey, United States.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Sharon Tate sighted on location filming “Rosemary’s Baby” on August 27, 1967 at Tiffany’s in New York City.

Ron Galella, Ltd. / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Musician Kurt Cobain, Courtney Love and daughter Frances Bean Cobain attend 10th Annual MTV Video Music Awards on September 2, 1993 at the Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, California.

Ron Galella, Ltd. / Getty

Bette Davis during Bette Davis Sighting Outside Hisae Restaurant in Los Angeles – May 7, 1980 at Hisae Restaurant in Los Angeles, California, United States.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger at Tavern on the Green for Bette Davis’ birthday party circa 1980 in New York City.

Photo by Images Press/IMAGES/Gett

Actor Sean Penn and singer Madonna leave the Mitzi E Newhouse at Lincoln Center, New York, New York, August 13, 1986. They were on a break during rehearsals for the Lincoln Center Workshop’s production of ‘Goose and Tomtom.’

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Dustin Hoffman during 7th Annual RFK Pro-Celebrity Tennis Tournament at Forest Hills in New York City, New York, United States.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Gwyneth Paltrow, Kate Moss, and Liv Tyler.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Cornelia Guest and Andy Warhol

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Actor Jason Patric and actress Julia Roberts on August 11, 1991 leave for Nick & Eddie Restaurant from the Morgan Hotel in New York City.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Nancy Reagan and Ronald Reagan sighted on March 10, 1974 at the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Halston, Bianca Jagger, and Liza Minnelli

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Bette Midler during The 19th Annual GRAMMY Awards at Hollywood Paladium in Hollywood, California, United States.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Mr. Hamley and Elizabeth Taylor’s Dogs during Mr. Hamley and Elizabeth Taylor’s Dogs. Beverly Hills. April 1, 1970 at Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills, California, United States.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Actor Johnny Depp on July 29, 1990 arrives at the Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, California.

Ron Galella, Ltd. / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Jackie Kennedy Onassis and John F. Kennedy Jr.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

(L to R) Marlon Brando and Ron Gallella on set for the documentary “Smash His Camera”. Studio: Magnolia Pictures. Plot: A film centering on the life and work of Ron Galella that examines the nature and effect of paparazzi.

Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo

Jerry Lewis and Sammy Davis Jr.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Robert DeNiro and actor Al Pacino attend American Museum of the Moving Image Awards Honoring Elia Kazan on January 19, 1987 at the Waldorf Hotel in New York City.

Ron Galella, Ltd. / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

John F. Kennedy Jr. during John Kennedy Jr. & Caroline Kennedy Sledding In Central Park at Central Park in New York City, New York, United States.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Cher and friend, Premiere For “The China Syndrome”.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Photographer Ron Galella attends Photo Exhibit on April 20, 1975 at Salon de Refuses in New York City.

Ron Galella / Ron Galella Collection / Getty

Washington, DC., USA, December 4, 1983. Ron Galella gets to eat a snack while waiting for the stars to arrive at the Kennedy Center Honors.

Mark Reinstein / MediaPunch Inc / Alamy Stock Photo