“Celebrities were quick to understand that paparazzi could make icons of them. The more a star is followed, the greater the adulation. Today, stardom is more ephemeral and it’s photography that gives then their celebrity status.” – Ron Galella
Ronald Edward Galella is an American photographer, known as a pioneer paparazzo born in 1931. Dubbed “Paparazzo Extraordinaire” by Newsweek and “the Godfather of the U.S. paparazzi culture” by Time magazine and Vanity Fair, he is regarded by Harper’s Bazaar as “arguably the most controversial paparazzo of all time”.
During his career, Galella has taken more than three million photographs of public figures.
A Bronx native of Italian heritage, Galella is son of an immigrant from Muro Lucano, Basilicata, and his mother, born in New Jersey, was daughter of immigrants from Benevento, Campania. After graduating high school, he won a two year scholarship at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn but turned it down due to his deficiencies in mathematics.
Galella served as a United States Air Force photographer (1951-1955) during the Korean War and later attended the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, California, graduating with a degree in photojournalism in 1958. In his free time Galella took pictures of the stars arriving at film premieres, selling them to magazines like National Enquirer and Photoplay. He soon became known for his photographic approach, portraying famous people out of the spotlight.
Galella’s photographs can be seen in hundreds of publications including Time, Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Vanity Fair, People, Rolling Stone, The New Yorker, The New York Times and Life. In his in-home darkroom, Galella makes his own prints which have been exhibited at museums and galleries throughout the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in both New York City and San Francisco, the Tate Modern in London, and the Helmut Newton Foundation Museum of Photography in Berlin.
In 2009, his father’s hometown Muro Lucano made him an honorary citizen. Galella is the subject of a 2010 documentary film by Leon Gast entitled Smash His Camera. The film’s title is a quote from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis directed to her security agent after Galella pursued her and her children through Central Park, New York. The documentary premiered at the 2010 Sundance Film Festival, receiving the Grand Jury Award for Directing in the U.S. Documentary category, and was also well received at the 54th BFI London Film Festival prior to airing on the BBC throughout the United Kingdom and Europe.
After retiring as a paparazzo, Galella is still active as a photographer at prominent culture events. He lives in Montville, New Jersey.
Galella was known for his obsessive treatment of Jacqueline Onassis and the subsequent legal battles associated with it. The New York Post called it “the most co-dependent celeb-paparazzi relationship ever”. The 1972 free-speech trial Galella v. Onassis resulted in a restraining order to keep Galella 50 yards (later changed to 25 feet) away from Mrs Onassis. He was found guilty of breaking this order four times and faced seven years in jail and a US$120,000 fine; later settling for a US$10,000 fine and surrendering his rights to photograph Jackie and her children.
On June 12, 1973, actor Marlon Brando punched Galella in the face outside a restaurant in Chinatown in New York City, breaking the photographer’s jaw and knocking out five of his teeth on the left side of his mouth. Galella hired a lawyer Stuart to sue Brando and ultimately settled for US$40,000. According to his lawyer, he only cared about getting a message out, “I don’t want anyone to think they can go around punching me if I am taking their picture.” Subsequently, the next time Galella chased Brando, he wore a football helmet.
Later on, he also lost a tooth when he was beaten by Richard Burton’s security guards. He unsuccessfully sued the actor. Let’s just say that he just wasn’t celebrities favourite person. His other targets included Elvis Presley, whose bodyguards slashed his tires, Brigitte Bardot, whose security staff hosed him down, and Sean Penn, who spat at him and reportedly punched him while being photographed with his then-wife Madonna.
In spite of these controversies, art galleries across the world have valued his work for its artistic and socio-historical value. He was praised by Andy Warhol, who said: “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous. It’s being in the right place at the wrong time. That’s why my favourite photographer is Ron Galella”. Art writer Glenn O’Brien defined him a “brilliant realist able to represent the world faithfully”.
His body of work can be found on his website HERE.