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01.26.10

I Shot Michael Jackson

Ron Galella, patron saint of paparazzi, released a new book of Michael Jackson photos. He spoke to The Daily Beast about stalking Jackie O. and Marlon Brando. Plus, rare images of Jacko.

After his death, the world was blanketed with images of Michael Jackson: wide-eyed and wide-lapelled in the Jackson 5; cocksure under the brim of a white fedora in “Smooth Criminal;” hollow in a bejeweled jacket and aviator sunglasses during his final press conference. The pictures were on T-shirts, on mugs, and most people, frankly, got sick of them.

Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Ron Galella's Man in the Mirror

But into this saturated marketplace comes fresh images of Jackson: Ron Galella’s rarely seen paparazzi photographs of the star in his salad days. In Man in the Mirror, Galella has captured the singer at his most candid: dripping after a swim while a young Janet towels him down; laughing with Muhammed Ali; gently kissing Brooke Shields inside a limo. They’re a dramatic departure from the over-saturated pictures with which we’ve become so familiar—but are especially surprising for another reason: Ron Galella and Michael Jackson met exactly once. After Jackson nabbed eight Grammys in 1984, he emerged from the Shrine Auditorium with Shields—where Galella was waiting. The photographer trailed the pair to parties that night, and eventually Shields introduced the men. “That was the only time I shook his hand,” Galella says. “He was very nice to me.”

Galella, now 79, is regarded as the founding father of paparazzi everywhere. In an industry once dominated by glamorous pictures of celebrities, Galella was among the first to sell paparazzi images to magazines. He opted for stealth, sneaking up on the famous to capture them unscripted. Marlon Brando socked him in the mouth, Brigitte Bardot got friends to hose him down in St. Tropez—and he even snuck onto Doris Day’s neighbor’s roof (he paid off the gardener) to snap pictures of the actress in her pool.

Because he had spent decades watching Jackson, Galella says the singer’s untimely death wasn’t surprising. “I personally think he did himself in, I think he committed suicide. That’s what I said, but [the publisher] took it out of the book,” Galella says. “He was too weak to do any more concerts.”

He continues: “He wanted to be a legend like Elvis. That’s why he married Elvis’ daughter, Lisa Marie. He even said to her that he sort of wanted to die like Elvis—he didn’t say it that way, but he meant it that way.” And: “There’s another reason I believe he committed suicide: because he was broke. He had every reason to end his life—and 50 was a good number.”

Michael’s public persona, of course, was painstakingly crafted, and many of the images we know are the product of carefully edited studio sessions. But with a photographer like Galella, Jackson was different—he was unprepared for the flashbulbs, and therefore, according to the paparazzo, seemingly unconcerned with his own image. “He was not self-conscious at all,” Galella says. “I believe he had enough ego to be proud of himself. He didn’t show this outwardly, but inwardly.”

Though Galella’s relationship with his subjects was, by definition, at a distance, usually unwelcome, and sometimes hostile, he still feels he knew their minds.

Galella is most famous for his photographs of Jackie Onassis. He captured her image in a series of stakeouts of her Fifth Avenue home (again, paying off the neighboring doorman for tips on her whereabouts). He trailed her to picnics in Central Park, to tennis matches—even to Greece, where he disguised himself as a Greek sailor to snag pictures of Jackie in her bikini. But his techniques eventually resulted in a very public trail ( Onassis vs. Galella): He had to stay 100 yards from Onassis’ home and 50 yards from her or her children.

Onassis acted, of course, as if she hated him. On a bike trip in the park, Galella remembers that Jackie screamed to her bodyguard: “Smash his camera!” This phrase has become the title of a documentary about Galella’s life, which was directed by Leon Gast and premiered at Sundance last weekend. “I called her my Mona Lisa,” Galella says of Jackie. “Because it has a little smile. She’s more famous than Mona Lisa—not the painting, but the person. Jackie’s more famous.” He pauses. “I think, anyway.”

Galella has all-but-retired from his physically demanding sport of photography, and is now ensconced in his massive, Sopranos-style mansion in New Jersey—where he lives with his wife, Betty, and a carefully maintained garden of fake flowers. He spends his days in the basement, where he develops film in a dark room, for special orders of his work. And he has dedicated himself to publishing books—for which he dips into an archive of negatives chronologically organized and alphabetized by subject. His next book, he says, will be called Boxing With the Stars—inspired, of course, by the Brando punch.

Galella’s success has always relied on his ability to, in some small way, unravel mystery and tell someone’s story. And celebrity photography trades on blurring the line between a famous person’s public image and private life—a theme that unites his work.

“Jackie was a great person to create mystery,” he says. “She whispered. She was a great actress. Likewise with Michael—he knew how to manipulate to get publicity. There were gimmicks, like his gloves. There were gimmicks to create more mystery. But mystery is what we want… it creates legends.”

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Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.