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Ron Galella

Behind the Camera

By Cindy Clarke

Paparazzo is an interesting Italian sounding word after all, which the dictionary suggests is rooted in the surname name of a character named Paparazzo in Federico Fellini’s 1960 film, La Dolce Vita. In the movie, Paparazzo is a news photographer who accompanies his bold tabloid journalist colleague Marcello (played by Marcello Mastroianni) in getting headline-worthy celebrity stories. Both men are ruthless in their quest for catching celebrities in compromising situations, but Paparazzo comes across more as a loveable hooligan than one of the invasive camera-toting predators some associate paparazzi to be today.

Which is exactly how I found the man behind the camera, a now 90-something Bronx-born, Italian descent Ron Galella, to be. Gentle, unassuming and as enthusiastic about the countless celebrity photographs he took years ago as he is today, Ron Galella is an original much like his pictures are. He learned his craft while he was serving in the US Airforce where he was tasked with working in the lab, then taking photographs at official events. He took his skills with him when he left the service after five years, and gave them wings when he continued shooting the high life.

He fell in love with photography during his years in the Air Force, he told me, and learned all he could about the process, from taking pictures to developing film and even attending the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena to study photojournalism.

“I was also interested in celebrities from day one,” he said. “Even when I was at the ArtCenter, I would crash premieres just to see them.”

That passion for photography and movie stars came together to launch his rather colorful career as a paparazzi persona, both loved and loathed by some of the best-known celebrities in history.

Take Jackie Kennedy, for example, by far Ron’s favorite subject. His photos of her number in the thousands, most of them shot in New York City where she lived and worked.  His favorite and best-selling picture is one he calls “Windblown Jackie,” named by Time Magazine in 2016 as one of their “Most 100 influential Pictures.” And he remembers every vivid detail of how he got that priceless shot back in 1971, as if it were yesterday.

“On that particular day, I saw her walking along Madison Avenue and followed her. At one point, I hopped in a cab so she wouldn’t see me.  When I pointed her out to the cab driver, he honked at her and she looked right at me – and my camera. The wind was blowing and it was a great picture.  It is my most famous picture of all time.”

There’s more to the story about his photographs and interactions with Jackie, including the two lawsuits she very publicly won against him, citing his constant invasion of her privacy, but that didn’t stop him in the end. “Jackie will always be my favorite subject,” he admits.

What really attracted and inspired him every day was being able to capture a celebrity doing what ordinary people do, spontaneously. He wasn’t interested in posed shots. He wanted the “real them.” So he did what other photojournalists do in the course of their assignments and went after in-the-moment pictures that were both newsworthy and original. And yes, when it comes to photographing famous figures who want to control when and how they are portrayed, he did get into trouble along the way.

Marlon Brando, not known for his friendliness, actually punched Ron so hard that he broke his jaw.

“It happened after he was a guest on the Dick Cavett show. I followed Dick Cavett and him to China Town, with another photographer. Brando knew about the court battle with Jackie. He asked Cavett, ‘Which one is Galella?’ And he said, ‘The tall one.’ Brando called me over and said, ‘What else do you want?’ They both had sunglasses on even though it was at night, and so I started to say it’d be nice to get a shot without the glasses, and before I said that, he socked me. He knocked out five teeth and broke my jaw. And I believe that was all payback for Jackie.”

Ron did sue Brando and won. “But it wasn’t about the money,” he added. “I didn’t want him to think he could punch other photographers and get away with it.” Ron famously donned a helmet the next time he approached Brando with his camera in hand.

Then there was Richard Burton. Burton was angry at Ron for following Elizabeth Taylor and him to Mexico where they caught him hiding in a cave adjacent to beach where they were filming a movie scene. He actually took all of the film out of Ron’s camera, along with the key to his hotel room where he had his men destroy all 15 rolls of film he had taken of Elizabeth Taylor that week. They also beat him up for good measure before he spent 45 minutes in a jail cell with one of Burton’s bodyguards. Ron eventually sued them and lost the case without getting any remuneration.

“The worst thing was that they destroyed all of my art, my photography,” he lamented.

With highly coveted high-profile photographs in his portfolio, Ron takes his craft very seriously and tries to photograph his subjects in the best light.

“My second best-selling picture is the one of John Lennon looking at Mick Jagger. It was taken at the American Film Institute at the Century Plaza Hotel. I sneaked in and used a long 300-millimeter lens to get that picture. It’s a great picture because of the composition and the one focal point of Mick Jagger facing the camera. The lighting was tremendous because CBS had it all lit up for TV.”

Look closely at the woman facing John Lennon and you’ll see a young woman named May Pang who was having an affair (with Yoko’s blessing) with John during the time he and Yoko were having problems in their marriage. May Pang is still in contact with Ron decades after the photo was taken.

That’s another side to Ron Galella that most people don’t associate with the paparazzi. Longtime friends with columnist Liz Smith, praised by Andy Warhol, thanked by Suzanne Somers, Robert Redford, Helen Gurley Brown, Ali McGraw, Frank Sinatra, Priscilla Presley and others whom he sent photographs he had taken of them, and hired by some of the biggest magazines, including Life, to take pictures of star-studded events, ever polite Ron Galella has made friends throughout the industry.

He even had an informal contract with Steve McQueen allowing him to take pictures for 10 to 15 minutes in exchange for not taking any unauthorized photos of the movie he was shooting with Ali McGraw. Ron handwrote and kept his promise, reading it to me during our interview. His words speak volumes about his integrity and many celebrities he candidly photographed were impressed by his unfailing sincerity.

While he is an expert at sneaking into events uninvited – it’s easy to enter through the kitchen he advises – he has his standards and techniques, all of which he freely shares with aspiring celebrity photographers in his 22 published books.

Among them, trust your intuition. Be persistent. Never give up. Find a loophole. Dress right.  Ask a celebrity to participate – it worked wonders with Beatle Paul McCartney. Communication sometimes pays off. Always act like you belong.

There’s more. To be a great paparazzi, he says, you need to catch celebrities off guard. Your photos must be unrehearsed, spontaneous, no appointments allowed.

We finished our conversation with a nostalgic look back at the famous photographs he has taken in his 60-year career, many of which are icons we’ve all seen and admired. Among them are unforgettable shots of Michael Jackson and his right hand, Madonna, Sophia Loren, Paul Newman, Queen Elizabeth and Jackie, of course. He remembers them all and remembers them well, taking great personal pleasure in the memories they created for him and the world.  You can see some of his best works in his books at rongalella.com/books and you can learn more about the man himself by watching the documentary film Smash his Camera. To order books or original photographs, contact Barbara Galella at barbie65g@aol.com.

If you do, we can almost guarantee that the next time you bring your camera along for that once-in-a-lifetime photo of someone you’ve admired from a distance, you’ll think of Ron Galella and let nothing stop you from giving it your best shot.

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