Ron Galella: the paparazzo who made art and became famous himself

Ron Galella was a star among the paparazzi. Feared and adored by stars, his photos became works of art and his obsession with Jackie Kennedy yielded some of the most famous images of the former first lady. He died, aged 91, on April 30, 2022.

According to journalists, Ron’s work was one of the tools in the construction of celebrity culture, especially since his captures of celebrities in curious and always natural situations, without pose, made him a problem. Marlon Brando, for example, assaulted him in 1973, breaking his teeth and jaw, but having to pay $40,000 in damages. A year later, the photographer started to wear a helmet to continue working and take less risks, but still photographing the actor. Jackie sued him (the matter stayed in court for 10 years), but his photos – of her and others – are some of the most famous records of the 20th century.

Independent, always with a camera in his hands, Ron Galella liked to catch people distracted, so his place of work was the streets of New York. To get to the stars, he bribed waiters and doormen, wore disguises, befriended drivers. His technique was surprise and agility, as he explained years later, because when the police arrived he would have already taken (and protected) the photo. Madonna and Sean Penn had their issues with him in the 1980s.

On the threshold between stalker and professional, Ron Galella‘s photos gained prestige and value, to the point of being considered art. “He is a viper, a parasite, a stalker, a worm,” wrote critic Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times in 2010. “He is also, I decided, a national treasure.”

Born Ronald Edward Galella in New York in 1931, he has always been passionate about show business. He enlisted in the US Army and fought in the Korean War, where he began working as a photographer. When he returned, he studied photojournalism and began working professionally, taking commercial photos or recording film releases. When he saw the film La Dolce Vita, by Federico Felinni, he began to work as a paparazzo, photographing celebrities to their despair and curiosity.

In a career spanning more than 60 years, all the most famous and important people have somehow been targeted by his camera lens. Aside from Jackie, who was her muse and obsession, Elizabeth Taylor was her most photographed celebrity. Richard Burton, then married to Liz, on one occasion had his security men beat Ron and retrieve the negatives of the photos he was taking of the couple (without permission, of course). Ron ended up arrested and with a black eye, as he remembered. The physical pain bothered him little. “They destroyed 15 rolls of my art,” he complained.

He was married for 37 years to journalist Betty Lou Bourke, who died in 2017. He has published more than 15 books and left a collection of more than 3 million images, some of which are even exhibited in museums such as the Tate Modern in London and MOMA. , in New York and estimated at millions of dollars. In 2021, he published his latest book, 100 Iconic Photographs – A retrospective.

Ron Galella passed away from congestive heart failure on April 30, 2022. Ultimately, he is compared to the likes of Diane Arbus and Henri Cartier-Bresson, and his photos bought by collectors and museums as examples of art. The art of seeing the stars as they are.

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