Ron Galella, also known as the “Godfather of the U. S. Paparazzi Culture,” is a controversial celebrity photographer from New York City, New York. He studied at the Art Center College of Design and is perhaps the most problematic, as he did manage to have many feuds with the celebs he photographed back in the day. For example, Elvis Presley’s bodyguards slashed his tires, Brigit Bardot’s security team hosed him, and Sean Penn wanted to handle the trouble maker himself and beat him up with his bare fists. Oh, and let’s not forget that Marlon Brando took the same route and punched out five of Ron Galella’s teeth in a punch to the jaw in 1973 and ended up breaking it. Tough times.
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Not only that, but Galella became infamous for a trial, Galella v. Onassis in which Jackie Onassis ordered a 50-foot restraining order from him. He broke the restraining order four times and was threatened a $120,000 fine and 7 years in jail. Wild, I know. It’s crazy with how much you could have gotten away with back in the days, but these were the moments the celebrity photographer lived for. He even has a documentary about his life called, Smash His Camera, directed by Leon Gast.
Who is Ron Galella?
Ron Galella was the original Paparazzo. He dared to go up close and personal to celebrities and take those candid shots that everyone recognizes from tabloids. He got a rush from beating the cops to get a good picture and follow a star trying to shake him in traffic. Those hand reaching to cover the front of a celeb face photos? His trademark. Until it became a sort of joke where some celebrities started posing as if they were caught off-guard. He called it his “no pictures” pose.
He got candids and “candids” of all the biggest names: Mick Jagger, Steve McQueen, Frank Sinatra, Robert De Niro, Sophia Loren, Ali McGraw, and Elizabeth Taylor to name a few. He loved taking pictures of people who were famous, doing things that people who weren’t famous did. He called this a perfect picture. The paparazzo extraordinaire had many tricks up his sleeve to get those shots. From shielding his camera lens with the rubber guard, always wearing a suit for the camouflage to sneak into events, keeping wigs and boots in his car for a quick disguise. These are just a few that he practiced in a long career of snapping the famous.
A Unique Approach
Born in Bronx, New York, Ron Galella believes he inherited his obsession with fame. His mother was also obsessed with film stars. In fact, she named him Ron after a British actor named Ronald Colman. While in Korea, enlisted in the US Air Force, he learned to use a camera and became the photographer on base.
Later, he furthered his studies of photography at an art school in Los Angeles. His military experience is incorporated into his photo-taking as in- he’s crafty and intense. He once bribed a nightguard to lock him in a warehouse, allegedly infested with rats, just to get a secret picture of Elizabeth Taylor and her beau, Richard Burton.
Galella vs. Onassis
His most photographed celebrity was Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, which lead to the Galella vs. Onassis case. He first took a picture of her at an art gallery opening in New York. The best-known photo of Jackie entitled “windblown Jackie” was of the former first lady walking down 5th Avenue in New York with her hair in the perfect windswept moment. He shot the photo from a taxi.
By then she was familiar with the paparazzi, so it was expected for paparazzi to follow her around everywhere. But, things got a little out of hand for Galella and was quickly being referred to as ‘stalkerazzi’ by the world. Things got so bad that he even started camping outside her house, which is what ultimately led to the court case. He decided to fight, blaming his stalking on “his job” which was to take so-called candid photos at all times. How did it end? Well, he earned a large settlement from it, so some might say it was worth it.
Now, Galella is retired and is only shooting from time to time, seemingly uninterested by current celebrities. A sign of time passage and aging out of the new definition of what’s cool or hip. But his photos will always be a reminder of who he is. Whether you respect his chops or hate his guts, you will always remember him as the stalker paparazzi. And for someone obsessed with other’s fame, maybe that’s something he secretly wanted.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published September 30, 2019.