“What I do now is the harvest of my life,” says Ron Gallela. Looking back on his long career, the paparazzo is at once contemplative and still, maybe, just a little combative. Today his efforts to get pictures of celebrities look almost quaint—he hid in the bushes, waited outside movie star’s homes or hotels, followed them from restaurants, but never as aggressively as those photogs descending like wild animal packs on Lindsay Lohan or Britney Spears today. Even as Gallela introduced a sense of urgency to his work that others have reduced to apparent desperation today, he maintained a certain respect for his subjects, an admiration he voiced repeatedly and sincerely.
Gallela’s self-image seems equal parts professional and personal. “I believe in what I do. I do not have any guilt,” he says in the documentary Smash His Camera. As another camera follows him following Katharine Hepburn from her home to a Los Angeles stage door, he adds, “The people out there want a glimpse of her, want to know her habits, her lifestyles. Even if she’s private, the fact that she shields herself with an umbrella, that picture’s interesting. It reflects her personality.” The sequence ends on a long shot of her walking with an open umbrella held to cover all but her trouser legs. It may reflect her determination to avoid the paparazzi, but honestly, how is this “her personality”?
The two-camera set-up here is telling, indicating the mutually dependent relationship between celebrities and the members of the press who sustain their fame. Gallela is a star in his own right—partly because he infamously tangled with some of his subjects (taken to court by Jackie Onassis, punched by Marlon Brando) and partly because his work has found other venues, in galleries, books, and now, Leon Gast’s film. If Gallela presents himself here as performing a service, serving an audience, and even helping his subjects (frequently to their dismay), he also suggests that his motives—and especially his effects—are not always clear, even to himself.
On one level, this excellent documentary takes Galella as its subject (“Why are you doing a piece on Ron Gallela?” asks Chuck Close during his interview with Gast). But on so many other levels, it uses him as a way to ask more resonant questions—about celebrity and class, obsession and delusion, the blurred definitions of public and private. Gallela’s stories about himself are also stories about that audience he imagines.
It’s not always clear who that audience may be, but it’s a question that leads to another, more provocative one: who is responsible for Ron Gallela? During a 1981 interview, Tom Snyder asks him, “You ever think you’re feeding an appetite that shouldn’t be fed when you get some of these pictures?” The answer is standard, looking to profits and popularity to measure value, or at least provide a rationale: “Every paper has a gossip column,” Gallela points out. But even if a market exists, the documentary wonders, how has Gallela come to be one of its most notorious dealers, to embody its most disreputable aspects?
Photographer Lynn Goldsmith asks, “What kind of person does it take to photograph people who do not want to be photographed?” The answer provided for her by fellow photographer Harry Benson—seated at a table for a discussion set up for the film—doesn’t actually respond to the question, but deflects it: “Oh,” he says, “They want to be photographed.” Again, the reasoning for the paparazzi’s apparent aggression or otherwise worrisome behavior—why they step over boundaries, why they insist on their rights, why they take risks—is linked to someone else’s desire. The audience wants it. The celebrity wants it. Fame is its own purpose, its own end and means.
The film looks at the two cases for Gallela that made him famous too. The one about Brando is narrated by Gallela, his assistant Paul Schmulbauch, and Dick Cavett, who was with Brando on that night in 1973. Their story pieces don’t precisely mesh, but as fragments—supported and undermined by accompanying images—they are convincing. If the facts of the event are clear (Gallela had stitches, then sued Brando), the effects remain ambiguous. A Geraldo Show segment suggests that his audience at the time thought Gallela overstepped and even deserved the assault. Still, he means to give consumers what they “want.” Cavett sums up: “What went through my mind was this was the most thrilling moment of my life, one of the most violent, and certainly the stupidest.”
The second case is less “thrilling,” violent and stupid in other ways. When Jackie Onassis argued that he harassed her and her children, she won her case. As Peter Howe sees it, Gallela’s three decades of pursuing Jackie Onassis was not just a professional mission, but also “a personal relationship. It was a relationship that was conducted through the camera, but it was nevertheless a personal relationship.” Gallela asks and answers his own question: “Why did I have the obsession with Jackie? I analyzed it: because I had no girlfriend and she was my girlfriend in a way.”
As an analysis, this seems glib, but it’s instructive as well: he loved her, as his imagined audience loved her, as he presumes that audience is all like him. Quite brilliantly, the film includes a scene set in a show of Gallela’s work: a young woman walks past the images, pointing to one and another, guessing at who she’s looking at. It’s not that she doesn’t know her historical figures or celebrities (though she doesn’t), but that she sees no need to. Gallela has put so much of himself into preserving these faces, into making monuments to stars and fame per se. But in the end, his work is more ephemeral than preservational.
Still, Gallela means to preserve, by his stories, his pictures, and his reverence. It makes sense that he’s produced by a culture that also has a vexed relationship to the past, wanting to possess it but also leave it behind, to move on to the next new thing and also maintain self-importance. That culture resents and exploits him as it resents and exploits his subjects.
As he narrates his efforts to know and show Jackie or Princess Grace or, more recently, Angelina, he does express a familiar desire, not one he invented. That doesn’t make his stories true, though, or even convincing to everyone. Neil Leifer, a photographer for Life and Sports Illustrated, sees a problem not only in what Gallela does, but also in how he does it. “His tactics are despicable. I think of him as a stalker. You go to the end of the First Amendment and there’s Ron Gallela sitting there.”
Gallela is within his rights, as First Amendment expert Floyd Abrams points out. “We protect him because we don’t want to start selecting who we protect and who we don’t protect,” says Abrams. “He’s really the price tag of the First Amendment.” The question is, who pays that price? And how?