Ron Galella, the New York paparazzo best known for his stealth photos of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, died last Saturday. Born in 1931, Galella lived through three culturally and technologically distinct eras in celebrity photography. Despite their enormous differences in ethos and aesthetics, their common elements offer insights into our photo-saturated age.
Before World War II, studio-era photographers like George Hurrell employed large-format cameras, dramatic lighting and heavy retouching to turn their subjects into otherworldly ideals. Stars were portrayed not as down-to-earth pals but as screen gods and goddesses: languid seductress Marlene Dietrich in a white tuxedo suit; blonde bombshell Jean Harlow with a fur slipping off her bare shoulders; Joan Crawford, her face emerging from deep shadows, gazing downward through impossibly long eyelashes.
The goal was glamour — a word that originally meant a literal magic spell — without pretense to realism. “The movie itself was only a passing story,” writes Hollywood historian Tom Zimmerman, “while the great studio portraits were romanticized ideals caught frozen in time: lasting objects of perfection to hold in your hands.”
After the war, the cameras, screens and stars got smaller. Using 35-millimeter film and minimal retouching, celebrity photographers portrayed their subjects as not that different from their fans, just richer and better looking. Photos depicted celebrities overseeing barbecues, helping kids with their homework or taking their families on Disneyland rides. It was image-making for the television age: friendly, cozy and domesticated.
This was the environment that Galella worked both within and against. Scorning staged photo ops, he stalked famous people to capture the candid moments he called “no appointment” portraits. “Expressions on the human face are much more infinite when the person is caught unawares,” Galella maintained. Instead of looking through the viewfinder, he held his pre-focused camera at chest level so he could make eye contact.
He photographed Woody Allen and Diane Keaton striding along a New York sidewalk, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor laughing at a gallery opening, and Sharon Tate adjusting her shoe in the back seat of a car. He poked through a hedge to catch Doris Day in her bikini. In his most famous photo, “Windblown Jackie,” his favorite subject turns toward the camera with a Mona Lisa smile veiled by her blowing hair. Galella was more interested in beauty than scandal, and his published shots were usually flattering.
But he was relentless, obnoxious and annoying. Marlon Brando punched him in the face, knocking out five teeth. Jackie took him to court, winning an order that he stay at least 25 feet away from her. “He didn’t see anything wrong with pursuing somebody, hounding somebody, not being respectful of a person’s privacy,” gallery owner Etheleen Staley, who showed his work, told Town and Country in 2020. “It just didn’t go into his head that you shouldn’t do that.”
For a brief period in the early 2000s, this heedless ethic dominated celebrity photography. Digital cameras and online gossip sites combined to produce a frenzy of invasive paparazzi activity, much of it by ambitious upstarts. In a 2008 Atlantic article about the photographers chasing Britney Spears, David Samuels pronounced paparazzi “one of the most powerful and lucrative forces driving the American news-gathering industry.”
Within a few years, their power had dissipated.
Photography and photo sharing turned out to be the smartphone’s killer app, ushering in a new era. “I think that communicating via images is one of these mediums that you’re going to see take off over the next few years because of a fundamental shift in the enabling technology,” Instagram founder Kevin Systrom said in 2010, the year his app launched. To say he was right is an understatement. Propelled by smartphone cameras and social media sharing, the number of photos taken worldwide soared. In 2015, it crossed the 1 trillion mark, and the sharp upward trend continues, with next year’s total projected to top 1.6 trillion.
Savvy celebrities quickly realized that what Systrom called a “life-sharing app” could change the relationship between photography and fame. By curating their own Instagram feeds, stars could offer fans previously unheard-of access to their private lives while simultaneously gaining greater control over their public images.
They began “inviting fans into their homes through the app, showing us their closets, bedrooms and how they were getting ready for a glamorous event hours before they were photographed on the red carpet or by the paparazzi,” writes ET Online’s Desiree Murphy, looking back on Instagram’s first decade. “No longer did we have to rely on the tabloids or the internet to get our celebrity fix; the stars were showing us themselves.” However intimate the photographs might appear, the celebrities are in charge. They, not photographers, editors, studio bosses or record labels, decide what we see.
Paparazzi are still part of the business, but their shots now tend to be “mediated candids” rather than ambushes. A star or publicist tells a trusted photographer where the subject will show up suitably styled, and the celebrity gives the photographer the eye contact or smile that will makes the photo pop. Like an Instagram post, the result is calculated candor.
Two enduring facts inform these different eras in celebrity photography. The first is that fans crave images of familiar strangers. (Before photography, prints served the same purpose.) Photos provide connection, inspiration and validation. Whether fans identify with the stars, long to be like them, admire their talent, looks, or lifestyle — or enjoy pronouncing judgment on their bad behavior — the camera offers access to otherwise distant lives. They feel immediate and real.
But they aren’t. A photograph is always art, not life. “Ron would shoot a whole roll maybe to get one frame that he really liked and he could sell,” a friend told Town and Country. The public doesn’t get to see every shot — all the more so in the digital age, when there are no contact sheets to preserve.
And a photo always leaves things out. Even the most candid image captures only a single instant in a limited frame. “Windblown Jackie” is a perfect moment. Galella heightened its allure by cropping away a distracting pole, an expanse of sidewalk and the bottom of Jackie’s rumpled jeans. The editing was critical to the photo’s composition and effect. On the street, we might not notice the pole or the wrinkles. We perceive a still image differently from the way we see a living, moving person. Its flaws are more apparent. Hence the wisdom of Andy Warhol, a frequent and willing subject of Galella’s lens: “Always omit the blemishes — they’re not part of the good picture you want.”
Social media turns everyone into a celebrity, curating images for audiences of judgmental viewers, including ourselves. Food, home decor, travel destinations and human faces are deemed “Instagram worthy” or not. But you can’t live in an unchanging, two-dimensional space. Photos are not experiences, merely souvenirs.
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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Virginia Postrel is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a visiting fellow at the Smith Institute for Political Economy and Philosophy at Chapman University and the author, most recently, of “The Fabric of Civilization: How Textiles Made the World.”
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