Even if you haven’t heard of Ron Galella, you’ve probably seen one of his pictures. Michael Jackson and Brooke Shields at the Shrine Auditorium in 1984, Jackie O. striding out of her Fifth Avenue home in a raincoat, Brigitte Bardot in a bikini in St-Tropez, Frank Sinatra and Jilly Rizzo, and countless others.
He is, in many ways, the first paparazzo, inventing the high-stakes stake-out industry that has generated millions of dollars and countless pictures of celebrities in various states of surprise and rage. Newsweek once dubbed Galella the “paparazzo extraordinaire”—a name that has become the title of a new book, out this month, that includes some of his most famous photographs. It’s a kind of greatest-hits collection centered around his show at the C/O Gallery in Berlin last summer. (The same show will open at the Foam Gallery in Amsterdam in June.)
Now Galella is 81 years old and lives in New Jersey with his wife, Betty, whom he calls the brains behind his business. (They were the subject of a documentary in 2010, Smash His Camera, that chronicled some of his greatest stake-out stories and most-prized photographs.) Galella’s images have become art, and he has struck gold by publishing a string of glossy coffee-table books—Man in the Mirror: Michael Jackson; Viva L’Italia; No Pictures—by spinning his classic images together in new ways. He’s retired from the grueling paparazzi game, but in May will make an appearance at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala, where he’ll be stationed on the red carpet, next to hordes of other screaming paparazzi. He has his eyes set on one star there: Taylor Swift. “I hope she shows up,” he says.
Galella is a man of stories. Each photo of Studio 54, of Elizabeth or Madonna, sends him on a happy trip down memory lane. His are tales of preemption and prediction, resting on a unique ability to outsmart a star to capture him or her at the perfect moment by popping out of a bush, jumping from around a corner, or hanging out the window of a taxi. When he photographed Greta Garbo leaving the Rizzoli bookstore in New York in 1978, he hid in a phone booth down the block before jumping out to take her picture.
His most beloved subject was undoubtedly Jacqueline Onassis, whom he trailed around New York’s Upper East Side for years. He jumped out of bushes as she biked in Central Park, hovered around her tennis matches—even followed her to Greece, where he dressed up as a Greek sailor in order to snag pictures of Jackie in her bikini. Eventually, Onassis pressed charges against him—and he was forced to stay 100 yards from her home and 50 yards away from her and her children. But that hasn’t stopped Galella’s thirst for Jackie. Next fall, he’ll release a book called Jackie: My Obsession, which will feature his pictures of the first lady and the Kennedys.
When I ask Galella whether he has ever been haunted by guilt for stalking celebrities, he says simply: “[Garbo] paid a price for privacy.” Mystery, he explains, is what our interest in celebrity is all about—and he sees that it’s his job to expose it. “Mystery is part of glamour. The new stars—the Housewives—they don’t have the glamour the stars of yesteryear had. Mystery is the most important thing: we want to know more. It’s a thirst that’s unfulfilled.”