On Fame and Infamy: ‘Smash His Camera’

[30 November 2010]

By Michael Curtis Nelson

Ron Galella, Paparazzo Superstar

A profile of self-proclaimed “paparazzo superstar” Ron Galella examines celebrity photography through the career of its most infamous practitioner.

Smash His Camera begins with a scene that establishes all the facets of the portrait that emerges over the course of this deft, insightful documentary. Galella, in his dark room, describes the film developing process, as he makes a print of his most famous photograph, “Windblown Jackie”: a 1971 shot of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis crossing a sidewalk in New York City. The sequence reveals Gelella’s career-defining obsession with the former First Lady; his insistence that he’s a photographer and artist first, paparazzo second (he considers “Windblown Jackie” his “Mona Lisa”); his obliviousness to the invasiveness of his actions; his work ethic (undiminished as he approaches 80); and his essential isolation.

“You have to be one up on these people” Galella confides, and throughout the film offers nuggets of wisdom for would-be paparazzi with the vernacular flair and sociopathic lack of remorse of a mob boss. In fact, photo editor and writer Peter Howe, who provides some of the most trenchant analysis of the photographer in the documentary, compares Galella to Tony Soprano, largely on the strength of his ostentatious and kitschy New Jersey mansion.

“Ron’s Rules of Paparazzi” define Galella’s photographic practice: “Sneak in” (he’s rarely invited to the events where he shoots subjects), “Dress Right” (he needs to blend in), “Don’t Check Coat” (on outside shoots in the winter, Galella leaves his coat in the car so he looks like a guest taking a break), “Kitchen = Entrance” (see first rule), “Forge Credentials” (see first rule), “Shoot Fast” (first, because Galella prizes subjects’ “look of surprise”; second, since opportunities to photograph subjects are fleeting, he makes the most of them).

For the most part, director Leon Gast resists commenting on Galella, instead letting the man and his images tell the story, with analysis from colleagues, editors, photographers, columnists, lawyers, and other experts serving to establish the range of attitudes about Galella and about the competing rights of subjects and paparazzi.

The legal perspective comes from the lawyers for all the parties in the 1971 lawsuit that Jackie Onassis brought against Galella for harassment. Her legal action was initiated in response to Galella’s own suit against her, charging that intervention by the Secret Service detail assigned to protect her children violated the photographer’s right to earn a living. Galella lost, and the judge required that he keep at least 50 yards away from Onassis and 75 yards from her children. This prevented Galella from gaining access to his favorite subject for a few years, until another judge reduced the distance to 25 feet, which enabled him to resume his obsessive coverage of her rare public appearances.

Gast assembled lawyers who represented Galella, Onassis, and the Secret Service agents for a spirited debate. Their arguments turn on where the first amendment rights of paparazzi end, and celebrities’ right to privacy begins. Though their opinions remain unchanged 35 years after the trial, all acknowledge the importance of the case as a precedent.

As heated as the legal discussion becomes, the debate among artists, photographers, and curators renders some participants apoplectic. While Galella has admirers among his peers, their praise is drowned out by the bile of his detractors. Neil Leifer, a photographer for Life, Time, and Sports Illustrated, offers the backhanded compliment that Galella’s “body of work is certainly not wonderful from a photographic standpoint; it’s wonderful from a subject standpoint”. Leifer, celebrity portrait photographer Lynn Goldsmith, and others critique No Pictures, Galella’s book retrospective of his work. “I would have thrown this one away”, Goldsmith says of a photo of Mick Jagger. She goes on to complain that Galella found a niche but never grew as a real artist should.

Thomas Hoving, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, venomously dismisses Gallela’s work, comparing it unfavorably to photographs by Walker Evans and Richard Avedon (and, absurdly, to paintings by Titian and da Vinci) in terms of its appeal to future audiences.

These detractors can’t critique Galella’s subject matter, since they exploit and profit from the public’s desire for celebrity images just as he does (and as Avedon did); neither can they voice what must gall them most: that Galella has made a career of poaching on their carefully cultivated and guarded photographic turf, and now enjoys an acclaim for it that eclipses the reception of their own work. At some level they must also all acknowledge that their own lucrative careers wouldn’t have been possible if Galella’s pioneering efforts hadn’t defined the field of celebrity photography.

On the few occasions when Gast editorializes, he does so subtly, by creating suggestive sequences of Galella’s photos. Prints assembled from an encounter during one of young Caroline Kennedy’s tennis lessons show Jackie fleeing the photographer, and underscore his disruptive influence, as well as the affinity between his actions and stalking.

On his way to cover an event honoring Robert Redford, Galella comes upon a location shoot for the Angelina Jolie film Salt. A montage of Galella photos of an increasingly younger Jolie interrupts footage of Galella, who says in voiceover, “I’d rather shoot her than Redford”. The final shot shows the girl, wide-eyed and apparently frightened, clinging to an adult, and the brief sequence portrays the aging photographer as exploitive and heartless.

Smash His Camera lavishes great attention on Galella’s photographs, manipulating them with care and expertise. A bewildering, rapid-fire montage of hundreds of shots of Jackie Onassis—prints, or changing images presented in thumbnail sheet format—both exemplifies Galella’s style and also documents the extent of his intrusion into the famous woman’s life.

During the trial, Galella’s team asserted that because Onassis is smiling in so many of the defendant’s photographs, she couldn’t have been particularly frightened of him. A sequence of still more shots of Jackie, each centered on her eyes, provides evidence for the audience to make up their own minds.

Yet another montage of images, from Studio 54, vividly captures the late-‘70s and early-‘80s celebrity scene, and supports an assertion that nobody interviewed in Smash His Camera disputes: Galella stands alone as the chronicler of the heyday of the celebrity. Photos of Peter Frampton, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Elton John, David Bowie, Mariel Hemingway, Ali McGraw, and many others—partying or emerging from the disco in the early hours of the morning—thumbnail the pre-AIDs excess of star-besotted America at the height of empire.

DVD extras include a slideshow of Galella’s favorite photos, many of them included in the film, and deleted or extended scenes.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/133942-smash-his-camera/