A few weeks ago, HBO began airing a 10-week series of independently-produced documentaries. I’ve seen the first three, and they are all superb–much credit is due to Sheila Nevins, president of HBO’s documentary division. Anyway, the first of the series is called Smash His Camera (directed by Leon Gast.) Its subject is Ron Galella, the celebrity photographer whose fame/notoriety began with his relentless pursuit of Jackie Kennedy.
You may not know Galella’s name, but he certainly became America’s first brand-name paparazzo. In the course of the documentary, there are numerous interviews with other photographers (among them Neil Leifer and Harry Benson), editors, columnists, and curators. Opinions on Galella and his work are all over the map. And Gast repeatedly uses clips from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, which was the first exposure most people had to the word “paparazzo.”
Early in my own career, I worked a lot for the AP, covering the full range of wire-service subjects: politics, sports, gangland murders, and ‘celebrities.’ I do hate that word, which has been defined over the years by many people (I don’t know who said it first, but it sounds like something from Dorothy Parker) as “famous for being famous.” One of my colleagues in those late ’60s–early ’70s AP years was a man named Felice Quinto. Raspy-voiced, always smoking, and with lots of great stories in his heavily Italian-accented English, Quinto was a fine photographer, never afraid to wade right into the scrum of a breaking news event. Early on, I remember being told that he was in fact the role model for Paparazzo, the star-hunting photographer in La Dolce Vita.
But I was almost always on assignment, and that meant being one-on-one with my famous subjects, whether they were film stars, politicians, or writers. The push-and-shove of so-called ‘gang bang’ photography was never where I wanted to be. Sometimes, though, it was unavoidable – political conventions, a major sporting event… even the failed attempt by Evel Knievel to jump the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, which followed an even bigger event in the summer of 1974: Richard Nixon’s resignation.
As I started to write this post, I decided to do a quick Google search on Felice Quinto and found to my surprise that he had died just this past February, in Maryland at the age of 80. I wish that Leon Gast had included an interview with him – it may be that he tried to, or perhaps just wanted to stay focused on Galella. Quinto’s obituary in the Washington Post is fascinating. Having never gotten caught up in the celebrity-stalking side of photography, I never saw him again after I stopped working for the AP. I’m probably the only New York-based photographer who worked through the ’70s and ’80s without ever setting foot in Studio 54, which is where both Galella and Quinto were shooting every night.
As I watched Smash His Camera, it was like stepping back 40 or so years in terms of the equipment we all had to work with. Nikon was the only game in town for that kind of work, although I do remember some holdouts using the twin-lens Rollei since the 120 film size allowed greater cropping (for those without money the Yashica-Mat 124 was an acceptable stand-in) and the reliable (except when it exploded in your hand) Honeywell Strobonar for the oh-so-flattering effect of direct flash.
Smash His Camera will be available from Amazon, and it’s worth seeing, whether you lived through that era or are currently interested in (or nauseated by) the amount of media attention and conversation devoted to even D-list celebrities.
As I write this, I’m reminded of an earlier film called “Blast ‘Em,” about another group of feral-and-on-the-prowl celebrity photographers working the streets of New York City (it’s available on Amazon and Netflix.) These films show us a time when there were far fewer markets for celebrity photos and far fewer celebrities to be stalked… and pre-digital, and long before reality TV. With the rise of Twitter and Facebook fandom, I wonder what we’ll think of today’s breed of celebrity-mania twenty years from now?
But back to Ron Galella: he’s now 79, walks a lot slower than in his heyday, and it seems like he is doing very well in terms of print sales to collectors. Gast’s documentary ends ironically, in a scene from a New York gallery opening of his work, where a young woman looks at print after print, knowing that the faces are familiar, but she just can’t quite put names to them. To any of us just a bit older than that woman, the names and faces are forever engraved in our minds.