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Paparazzi Picture Exhibit Opens

By David Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 9, 1997; Page E01

NEW YORK—The paparazzi are plainly the villains of the hour, held accountable by the public for the high-speed crash that killed Princess Diana. But could they also be artists in spite of themselves?

That is the underlying assumption of a timely two-part photography exhibit that opens tonight at the Robert Miller Gallery here on East 57th Street. The first part, "Il Paparazzo, 1954-64," examines some of the fabled photographs of the original generation of paparazzi, who plied their trade along the Via Veneto in Rome, catching movie stars and fallen royalty with their glamour down and their dander up. The second part, "I Paparazzi, 1964-1997," concentrates on contemporary fashion and society photographs, many of them drawn from the archives of Italian Vogue.

The point is indisputable: Paparazzi have changed the way we look at things. We may not like their techniques or their manners. But their provocative, in-your-face style and the immediacy of their intrusive photographs have exerted an influence far beyond the supermarket tabloids.

Most of us don't want to see Princess Di in a car wreck, granted. To the extent that few of us are excited by canned stills of movie stars or dutifully posed shots of society figures, the paparazzi have won a major battle. Celebrity, these days, is routinely depicted on the run, in action, off-guard. And what are the fashion models, who stare at us from magazine advertisements with insolent pouts as if their privacy somehow had been violated, if not part of the paparazzi's legacy?

Before the show opened here, it was subject to what gallery owner Robert Miller calls "intense pre-show interest." Reporters and television cameramen swarmed through the rooms while most of the photographs still lay on the floor, waiting to be hung. The hullabaloo was so intense that the gallery felt compelled to issue a statement pointing out that the exhibitions had been in the works for eight months and were meant in no way to capitalize on the tragic death of Princess Diana.

There is, in fact, only one image of her on display. Taken by Marina Schiano, it shows the backs of the princess and designer Ralph Lauren, as he escorts her into a formal dinner in Washington in 1996. Framed in black on a wall all its own, the picture couldn't be more discreet.

Such discretion is atypical. In three of the most surrealistic photographs, taken by Marcello Geppetti in the early 1960s, an outraged Anita Ekberg actually goes after the paparazzi outside her villa in Rome with a bow and arrow. (The gallery has the arrows, but chose not to exhibit them.) With her voluptuous figure and fiery temperament, Ekberg was a popular target back then. So were Brigitte Bardot, caught by Geppetti's telephoto lens while she was sunning topless by her St. Tropez pool next to a bare-bottomed Gunter Sachs; Gina Lollobrigida, seen collapsing to the sidewalk in a fainting spell; and a majestic Sophia Loren, who manages to look both bemused and flattered by the photographer who is poking his camera through her car window.

History now has it that the paparazzi came into being on a hot August night in 1958 when Tazio Secchiaroli, a freelance newspaper photographer, and several of his peers set out to prowl the streets of Rome. In quick succession, they came upon, photographed and angered the deposed King Farouk and two young women at an outdoor cafe; Ava Gardner and Anthony Franciosa at a second cafe; and Ekberg, dragging her drunken husband, Anthony Steel, out of a nightclub. The resultant scuffles in each case were caught on film and caused a sensation when they appeared in various publications shortly thereafter. "We found," Secchiaroli later said, "that with small events created on purpose, we could earn 200,000 lira, while before we got 3,000."

Celebrity baiting was born.

Two years later, film director Federico Fellini would incorporate a character modeled after Secchiaroli into "La Dolce Vita" and baptize him "Signor Paparazzo." The name apparently belonged to one of Fellini's childhood friends, who liked to imitate the buzzing sounds of pesky insects. A new generic noun was born.

From the very start, the paparazzi have both exalted the state of celebrityhood and debunked it. Attracted like moths to the glittery and the famous, they want to reveal their famous subjects in moments of awkwardness, weakness or vulgarity. They acknowledge the irresistible attractions of the high life -- the furs, the champagne and the dripping jewels. At the same time, their eye inevitably goes to the torn hose, the smeared makeup and the drunken leer. A love/hate duality characterizes their work and gives tension to their most telling images.

If that were just another woman, lying indecorously on the sidewalk, the image would be banal. But it is one-time sex symbol Jayne Mansfield, her platinum hair fanned across the pavement. (She had just been decked by an angry woman for reasons now forgotten.) Suddenly the banal acquires a scandalous piquancy. Most of Geppetti's pictures are noisy with brouhahas and excitement.

The contemporary half of the exhibition is tame by comparison. The only working paparazzo per se is Victor Malafronte, an American, and his movie-premiere shots of stars such as Diane Keaton and Sylvester Stallone are predictable fan-mag stuff. Maripol, a Frenchwoman who once worked as a stylist for Madonna, is represented by nearly 50 color Polaroids of her famous friends (Jean-Michel Basquiat, Tom Cruise) and their nighttime exploits in the early 1980s. Marina Schiano, who takes amiably relaxed shots of her upscale friends (Baryshnikov, Carolyn Bessette Kennedy, Joan Collins) does so, she insists, only with their "approval and complicity."

The curators want it that way, preferring to focus instead on the paparazzi "influence." Many of the Vogue photographs intentionally ape classic paparazzi situations -- actress Claudine Auger, for instance, lounging at a cafe table while two military men try to pick her up; or model Karen Mulder, dolled up as a starlet, teasing a veritable phalanx of photographers in front of the Carlton Hotel in Cannes.

In the end, if an aesthetic point is made, a raging moral debate is sidestepped. At this remove in time, the efforts of the 1960s paparazzi can be viewed with some nostalgia and even humor. What astounds us now about the shots of "Haudrey Epburn," as Geppetti identifies her on his contact sheet, is only how young she appears.

Princess Diana, however, brings far more disturbing thoughts to mind. The Robert Miller Gallery, playing it safe, has made sure all the provocation is safely in the past.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

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