The Star who Shot the Stars
In memoriam: Ron Galella (1931–2022)
Ron Galella, a leading figure in photography, died on 30 April at the age of 91. In his own view, “taking a picture”, as he explained to the National Post in 2010, “was like capturing a feeling”.
He referred to his master Henri Cartier-Bresson as the “decisive moment” in the art of portraiture, admitting that this was precisely what he, too, “had always sought to capture throughout his career”.
His lifelike portraits have travelled around the world and have been featured in numerous magazines. The greatest figures of the last half of the 20th century posed for him: Greta Garbo in the streets of New York, Diane von Furstenberg at Studio 54 (a studio he particularly liked), Jack Nicholson, Warren Beatty, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, the Duke and Duchess of York, Donald Trump, Andy Warhol, and many others.
He would later recount his 1973 session with Marlon Brando. As night fell on Manhattan, after waiting for the actor all day, Brando finally arrived. Without warning, the star gave him a hook that shattered five of his teeth and broked his jaw. When the photographer met Brando again, some time later, he was wearing a football helmet.
For Ron Galella, born in the Bronx in 1931 to Italian immigrant parents, photographed celebrities without their permission. He was what would later be called a paparazzo — i.e. “a noisy mosquito” in dialectal Italian — a name owed to Frederico Fellini, who in his film La Dolce Vita gave the young photographer accompanying Marcello Mastroianni the patronym Paparazzo.
Galella was not the first paparazzo. But he practised this discipline as a pioneer, with passion and creativity, combining the instinct of a hunter, the pugnacity of a war reporter and the sheer sense of setting of a movie director.
His favourite model was Jacqueline Onassis, for whom he had a passionate love, going so far as to infiltrate her yacht disguised as a sailor — with a false moustache and wig. A love that was not very well paid for, since Jackie sued him and forced him to keep a minimum distance of 8 metres.
That he did not respect. He was convinced that his subjects needed his lens and that their aura was enhanced by it.
And perhaps this was true after all?
For his stolen photos also helped, in their own way, to build the legend of his models, who were then at the height of their fame.
What would a star be without a stolen photo? Just as in the 18th century, when the fly, that little piece of black taffeta that was glued to one’s face, served to enhance the whiteness of one’s complexion, the blurred black-and-white photo taken by the paparazzi in the 20th century enhances a star’s radiance. Just as there is no light without shadow, there is no glory without the possibility of a fall.
Hollywood overexposed its stars in the light of the spotlights; Galella sculpted their shadowy side revealing their earthly side. Each shot told in counterpoint the price to be paid for each ascent by fixing on film its Faustian pact.
But that, of course, was before. Before the fast-fame of TV and the internet; before stolen photos or videos sought not only to trap the models, but to humiliate them; before this practice was ubiquitous, viralized, popularized on social networks.
Then Ron would leave the shadows for the light, publish 22 books, live adulated in a Hollywood villa in New Jersey, walk the red carpets…
Like a hunter who eventually joins his preys.¶