Papa Paparazzo Ron Galella Gets His Close-up in Smash His Camera


With his lumpy face, Bronx accent, and streetwise hitch, Ron Galella comes on like a fringe player in some ’70s New York B-movie—which, in reality, is similar to how the notorious paparazzo functioned during that decade and beyond, skulking along the margins to cast light upon stars like Burton and Brando, the latter even famously breaking his jaw with a sucker punch. Leon Gast’s documentary portrait has a freewheeling charm that perfectly matches its subject, shifting focus between high-spirited testimonials, pocket cultural histories, blow-by-blow eyewitness accounts, and digressions on the aging photographer’s extensive collection of rabbits. His recklessness legitimized by First Amendment resolve, his egotism undaunted despite daily degradations (he’s at once a sniper and ambulance-chaser), Galella’s unquestioned pursuit of candid snapshots produced something like folk art and, even better, an unintended cultural critique—he exemplified and denuded celebrity worship with each shutter click. As Gast (When We Were Kings) takes time to demonstrate, nowhere was this more apparent than in his professional stalking of Jackie Onassis. Though his aggressive tactics eventually led to a court case that set precedents for privacy law, Galella’s photos of the former First Lady reveal a strangely intimate symbiosis between parasite and host. Now a semi-retired, semi-rehabilitated 79-year-old coasting on his own minor celebrity, in his prime Galella was the necessary class-collapsing medium between millionaires and the National Enquirer–reading masses, allowing each to gain access to and complete the other.