Smash His Camera

While we may scour through pages and pages of celebrity snapshots, little do we know about the people who actually photograph them. Adrian Grenier’s documentary, Teenage Paparazzo provided a rare glimpse into the subterranean world of the paparazzi, but it is veteran documentary-maker, Leon Gast ( When We Were Kings ) who brings us ‘the Godfather of the U.S. paparazzi culture’, Ron Galella, in his award-winning film, Smash His Camera .


“I only knew a negative side of Ron Galella and the way he had been portrayed in all the local media,” explains Gast from Woodstock, New York. “And when it was proposed by a producer I had worked with before, Linda Saffire… she mentioned Galella and Adam Schlesinger, the other producer - I met them, we talked a little bit about Ron and they asked if I’d take a meeting at Ron’s place in [New] Jersey - I gladly did.”


‘Smash his camera’ are the now immortalised words of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis who once uttered them to her security guards after discovering Galella had been following her. The notorious paparazzo, possibly more famous for his less than gentlemen antics when it came to pursuing high-profile celebrities, was known to jump out of bushes, clothing racks, don disguises, all in the name of capturing the ultimate photograph.


“I was more curious than anything to meet this guy who I only thought of as a villain, and when I did meet him, I was kind of charmed by him,” says Gast. “He was genuinely a nice guy and he knew that I had negative feelings about his work… My feeling was, this guy didn’t act the way we want to act with other human beings; we want to respect their privacy and them respect my privacy and all that kind of things, but Ron is a guy who really believes that he was performing some kind of service for mankind. He honestly believed that… He felt that he was taking chances and that he wasn’t doing anything wrong or beyond the law.”


Onassis would take Galella to court several times in his 50-year career, with a final restraining order to reflect just how much he documented her every move. A real-life encounter with the ‘Godfather’, Marlon Brando, left Galella with a punch in the face and five teeth missing. Yet, having watched Smash His Camera, it’s astounding to think that so many of the iconic photographs of the true golden age of Hollywood were captured by the paparazzo.


For Galella, it was all about getting the ‘off-guard’ shots of celebrities as opposed to the posed photographs, but with that came a price. According to Gast, the director had hoped to score an interview with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, who at the time of filming were Galella’s most important subjects. “I figured that I know somebody who knows her [Angelina Jolie] very well, and he lives up here… and I asked him, and he spoke to her and she said, ‘No fucking way’. No way would she in any way do a sit down interview with me for a film with Ron Galella.”


“They [celebrities] just felt that it was kind of beneath their dignity to have anything to do with this guy, so it was a challenge knowing that everybody felt that way about Galella,” says Gast. “I think that the film, we wanted to be 50-50, right down the middle and there were a few people who thought that he was (I don’t remember specifically) but things like, ‘scum’ and things like ‘no significance’, ‘no artistic significance and no historical significance that they are so many people out there doing the same things’.”


Galella’s work can be found exhibited at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and undoubtedly, opinions will differ as to whether the paparazzo’s work transcends the glossy pages of tabloid magazines into the realm of art. And while Gast has a whole new respect for Galella’s work, he remains less than sympathetic towards the paparazzi profession.


“Here’s a guy that can describe what he was doing when he was taking pictures,” explains Gast. “I’m sure there are no paparazzi that could tell you, ‘what I am looking for is: I see the eyes as the focal point of the picture’.”


Unlike the digitised world of the paparazzi, Galella still honours the traditional method of printing his own work. “You can see when he did make prints and when he did go into his darkroom and do it, he’d actually make the eyes the focal point, but then he would move ‘em off to the right side or the left side, always taking into consideration lines, and have an understanding in balancing the frame,” says Gast.


“I have respect for him as an artist and I can’t come to believe that he is an artist, that what he did, and that was photographing celebrities – he’d say they’re a nobody, they’re a nobody – but it’s what he’s contributing to mankind.”


The First Look season of Smash His Camera screens at ACMI in Melbourne from Thursday February 3 until Sunday February 6. For more information and session times please visit acmi.net.au.