Ron Galella is a legend. His work has hung in the Museum Of Modern Art. He's been punched in the face by Marlon Brando and sued by Jackie O. Some call him repulsive. Galella calls himself a "paparazzi superstar."
Galella has shot everyone. And covered the Academy Awards since 1968. He keeps bunnies as pets "because they're soft" and has a garden full of rabbit statues which represent every time a pet bunny has died. The HBO documentary Smash His Camera, which premiered last night (and will be on again a few times this week — check your listings) focuses not only on Galella's remarkable life, but on questions we still ask today: What are a photographer's rights? What are a celebrity's rights?
Galella's favorite subject was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis; he even says that he thinks he shot her so often because he "had no girlfriend. I wasn't tied down, married… She was my girlfriend, in a way." His image of her, crossing the street, windblown, has become iconic. Jackie O. later obtained a restraining order against Galella.
Galella's lawyers and Mrs. Kennedy Onassis' lawyers were put in a room together — more than 30 years after the court cases — and found that they still cannot agree, when it comes to the paparazzi. One the one hand, you have the fact that Galella — and many other photographers — have never committed actual crimes; taking a picture on a public street is not illegal. On the other hand, following a person, jumping out from the bushes to catch them unawares, yelling at them to get a reaction shot — these actions can come close to harassment. While some of Galella's tactics — removing leaves to create a hole in Katharine Hepburn's hedge; spending the weekend in a rat-infested warehouse to shoot Elizabeth Taylor on her yacht while remaining unseen — may seem extreme, he did not break the law. And when, on the street, a celebrity said, "no more pictures," Galella would walk away.
But the documentary touches on the symbiotic relationship Galella and his subjects often had. Peter Howe, author of Paparazzi, speaks of the "alliance" between photographers, celebrities, editors of the gossip magazines and magazine readers. Celebrities who truly want to hide from the paparazzi and remain invisible do so. The others? Generally use the candid photos to court attention and stay relevant. And many of us who are into pop culture like the unscripted moment. Stars are often presented packaged: In a designer dress, shot by a fancy photographer, with professional hair and makeup, retouched and "perfect" on the cover of a magazine. The article inside the mag will, in 1200 words, attempt to give us insight as to how the star "really" lives; what she is "really" like — written by a person who can't piss off the star, or her publicist. Paparazzi shots offer a glimpse of something much closer to reality: Unvarnished, unedited, imperfect, human.
When it comes to Jackie Kennedy and Ron Galella, The New York Post once called them "the most co-dependent celeb-pap(arazzi) relationship ever." Galella became "friendly" with Jackie O's maid, Greta — taking her out to lunch and gleaning information — and when Jackie found out, she promptly fired the young woman. But Greta told Galella that Jackie bought — and saved — all of the magazines her paparazzi photos appeared in. Noted gossipeuse Liz Smith says, in the film, that Galella "really captured" the essence of Jackie, and that they both benefited from the relationship. Now that the is gone, Galella's images — which truly documented a specific time, mood, and aspect of a woman the American public was fascinated with — live on.