Toward the end of Smash His Camera, an excellent HBO documentary about self-described “paparazzi superstar” Ron Galella (it hits movie theaters next week), a young woman tours an exhibition of Galella’s photos. The subjects are all icons from the photographer’s salad days, which extend from the Eisenhower era through the Reagan years, and the young woman knows almost none of them, from Jackie O to Brigitte Bardot (or, as she sounds out the name, “Bar-dot”). It’s a funny scene, and an economical reminder of the fleeting power of fame and the short shelf life of Galella’s life’s work.
One of the photos in that exhibit is of Muhammad Ali, the subject of another stellar documentary by director Leon Gast. As he did in When We Were Kings, Gast makes it look deceptively easy to make an energetic, highly entertaining biopic with something to say, not just about its main subject but about us.
Peter Howe, a former photo editor and one of the more insightful talking heads interviewed in Smash His Camera, says affectionately of Galella that he’s “sort of singularly unaware of the impression he makes on people.” Lucky for us, since he surely wouldn’t have let Gast and his crew film such fascinating, cringe-inducing stuff if he’d known how it would come off. Like the story he and his wife tell of how he proposed (and was accepted) the day he met her—she relates the tale in romance-novel terms, then he cuts in: “Then we went to the nearest hotel and shacked up.” Or the tour he gives of the couple’s Jersey McMansion, stopping to showcase a graveyard for their dead bunnies and the “garden” he populates with plastic-coated fake plants.
This touchingly innocent lack of boundaries and blindness to unwritten rules probably goes a long way toward explaining why Galella has pursued his subjects with such intensity. Watching him lumber after the rich and famous, still absorbed in the hunt at age 77, or hearing him talk about the people he’s shot, it’s clear that he genuinely admires, even loves, his favorite subjects. They need him too, since his photos feed their fame. As Howe says of Galella and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, his longtime muse: “It was a relationship that was conducted through the camera, but it was nevertheless a relationship.” But Galella keeps blundering past the boundaries most photographers respect, mistaking his symbiotic relationship with his subjects for something else. Asked why he used to follow Jackie O so obsessively, he says he was single then, and “She was my girlfriend, in a way.”
Jackie apparently saw things a little differently, taking Galella to court more than once for invasion of privacy. Gast uses their battle to touch on the issue of invasion of privacy, bringing in experts like lawyer Floyd Abrams (“He’s really the price tag of the First Amendment,” Abrams says of Galella) to weigh the right to privacy against the right to take pictures in public. He also finds some interesting experts to weigh in on the merits of Galella’s work and what distinguishes an artistic photo from a snapshot. Thomas Hoving plays the same role here as he did in Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock, embodying the art world elite who look down their noses at the likes of this charlatan. A more sympathetic but equally contemptuous Chuck Close makes a good point about photography being the easiest medium in which to be competent and the hardest to make one’s own, arguing that Galella’s lack of a signature style marks his photographs as mere hack work. But the most interesting moment to me was when a roundtable of professional photographers critique a book of Galella’s work, their initial condemnation softening as they pause to admire some of the images.
I had the same reaction, time and again, as the camera glides over Galella’s photos. As one of the talking heads puts it, there’s an energy there, a life force, a sense of humor. But most of all, there’s the fascination of seeing celebrities, not as they want to be seen but as they look in unguarded moments. As Graydon Carter puts it: Galella “unlocked the Pandora’s box of how people presented themselves.” We cluck a lot now about having gone too far in the neverending game of gotcha we play with famous people, but we’ll never be able to stuff our voyeuristic interest back into that Pandora’s box. And, as this movie reminds us, we need galoots like Galella to get us the info we crave, so we shouldn’t crucify him for our sins.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.