Ron and Betty began to spend entire days on stakeout together. This was long before cell phones and the mobs on the red carpet, and Galella prided himself on his cleverness in breaking into velvet-rope environments. He wore wigs, glasses, hats; he faked credentials. Once he cut a hole in a hedge to get a shot of Doris Day sunbathing. (In response, she built a wall, then moved far away.) He followed Jackie to a Chinese restaurant, then, after he was invited in by the owners, crouched behind a coatrack and—using only available light—captured an image of Jackie with I. M. Pei and Doris Duke. In the uncropped print, the celebrities are not alone: The waiters gaze into the camera, posing for Galella’s photo, while the stars they serve are oblivious.
Those were better days, he tells me. Today, the paparazzi care for nothing but money. “They’re unskilled. It’s terrible. I’m glad I do books. My books are my children. I can control the books.”
What he can’t control is the culture of exposure that seems much in his debt: not just the snarling videographers of TMZ but the larger universe of amateurs, the club kids upskirting their frenemies on Flickr, the reality stars marketing their own sex tapes. The stars today are “featherweights,” in his opinion. What Galella misses is that lost, thick, shiny veil of Hollywood glamour, the old studio stardom that was controlled and extreme and dishonest—and therefore, from his perspective, well worth tearing away.
Betty and he share the same opinion about the case of Britney Spears. They are disturbed by her, by the way she dated a paparazzo, by the deals she is rumored to cut with the very photographers who seem to be driving her mad. She’s a sick, sad child, says Betty. Perhaps because, unlike Elizabeth Taylor, she didn’t have the studio system to train her to be a star.
I ask Galella about the Miley Cyrus photos, the ones showing her half-naked. “Well, I think it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous in the fact that it promotes sex.”
“You can’t speak to that!” says Betty.
“I speak what I want.”
“Whatever.” She rolls her eyes.
Galella chuckles. “It promotes sexual promiscuity in the young. The sexual drive is enough to promote chaos in people’s lives. People mature too fast—by nature. These girls, they get knocked up, and usually the man is forced to get a job that he don’t like. He don’t have a career. He has to go to an A&P to develop—I didn’t have that, I developed a career! I think that’s what’s wrong with today. They get married too fast. They don’t love their job.” Heh heh heh.
“If everybody loved their job, it’d be a great world.”
These days, Galella feels vindicated as an artist, a pioneer in a “magic medium.” His prints are in MoMA, his books praised in the New York Times. He is a “bandit of images,” he says, quoting Fellini with the cheerful braggadocio he traces to his heritage. “Italians have a great culture, in art, in music. Michelangelo, Da Vinci. I say they’re my father! Because I could pick my father: I could study them, so they’re my father. Because my father’s not—you know.”
“Andy [Warhol] loved him,” says Charlie Scheips, worldwide director of photographs at the auction house Phillips de Pury. “He comes out of the tradition of Weegee. For me, they resonate as pure, old-fashioned, chemical photography—he will be remembered as a photographer of his era, as Jerome Zerbe was in the thirties.” But whereas Zerbe was part of elite café society, taking intimate portraits of his friends, Galella persisted as an outsider, documenting the stirrings of “a more casual age, when stars went out to discos, to nightclubs.”
Galella’s finest images still live most naturally on the printed page, says Scheips. The digital era has rendered his medium defunct. And while Galella’s mark may be everywhere (fashion magazines mimic his imagery, Scheips notes), “if people considered it high art, he’d have dealers all over the world. And he doesn’t.” (Galella points out that he does in fact have dealers in Amsterdam and Paris.) His market value could change, Scheips adds: “Who knows why one person hits it big-time? Jackie Onassis was not prettier than Lee Radziwill, but she was the one who was iconic.”
Galella’s latest book, No Pictures, due out November 1, is a series of denials: The stars hold up their hands, pushing away the camera. On the opposite page from each photo, in huge white print, is Galella’s recollection of what they said to him (“It’s Ron Galella. Run!” —Ryan O’Neal.).
A high-school Italian teacher, Mrs. Costanza, once told Galella that you are “somebody or nobody.” Deep down, everybody wants to be famous, he believes; to be famous is a “good thing,” to be photographed a compliment. So if stars say they are angry about being photographed, they are acting. If they ignore Galella as he shoots, they’re consenting. If they smile for one photo, and then disallow the next, they’re hypocrites. In fact, stardom itself is hypocrisy. “They pretend they don’t want it, but they really like it.”