Ron Galella, 83, is the original paparazzo. Before him, the word “paparazzi” didn’t carry the connotations we give it today, although he certainly instigated them. At a time when most star gazing was done through high-gloss magazines featuring done-up celebs photographed under studio lighting or on red carpets, Galella sought to capture stars in their own element— “doing things,” as he puts it.
Decades later, Ron Galella’s work has inspired artists and an entire profession, in the form of paparazzi photographers (Celebs, now you know who to thank).
Beginning Thursday, Galella’s work, including some never-before-seen shots, will be on display in a digital gallery located at Row NYC in Times Square. The hotel is also debuting a luxury suite that houses some of Galella's prints.
We were there Wednesday evening to get a first look. The gallery is situated in a luxurious open bar space, lofted above the lobby, which offers a plush 70’s vibe that throws back to the scenes of Galella’s most famous shots of New York nightlife -- there were even signature cocktails like the "Run, It's Ron!".
Projected onto a large wall at the back, the digital gallery cascades through iconic shots of personalities in high contrast black and white: Andy Warhol standing in front of a group of elephants at the zoo, a close-up of Mick Jagger and John Lennon wearing tuxes in an empty banquet, a particularly peeved Barbra Streisand. Rarely posed, the shots capture candid moments that evoke a whimsy that’s glaringly absent from paparazzi shots today.
When asked how he gets shots that are so different from typical pap shots of celebs lugging oversized Starbucks coffees through SoHo, Galella tells us, “those guys are slow.” He says, "everyone has a phone with a camera now and they're all hanging out in the same places. They don't know how to capture the unexpected. It's about a moment."
In fact, that’s how he got his most famous and beloved masterpiece, which he calls, Windblown Jackie. It's a candid of Jackie Onassis (who filed a little-policed restraining order against him) crossing the street in New York City with windswept hair and without any makeup. It’s how he likes to remember her. "The key to her glamour is mystery," Galella says. "It's not about all that makeup." He hopped in a cab to follow her around the corner and with the camera to his face the cab blew its horn causing her to turn around. “She gave a slight smile here because she didn't realize it was me,” he explains.
His relationships with celebrities were often tumultuous. After all, he sought to photograph stars when they least wanted to be photographed—without the Hollywood hair, makeup and lighting. In the 80’s, he had more than one run in with Hollywood bad boy Sean Pean and Galella's collection includes a carefully cropped shot of Penn throwing a punch at his nephew. “Ah, it was just a little boxing match. No one was hurt.”
His start in photography was unexpected. In 1951, rather than be drafted for the Korean War, Galella enrolled in college to obtain a degree in photography where he first picked up a camera. A decade later he would find himself on the dance floors of New York’s hottest discos, including Studio 54, Electric Circus and Max’s Kansas City, with legends like Diane von Furstenberg, Lauren Hutton and John Travolta. The element of fine art in his shots is high and he speaks about his work with the care of a painter.
Growing up, he consumed every version of Edmond Rostand’s, “Cyrano de Bergerac” that he could find on film—it’s what hooked him on stars. “The white plume Cyrano carries in his hat stood for justice and freedom, freedom for journalists and freedom of the paparazzi,” Galella says.
If he could choose some celebrities to stalk today he’d be following around Michelle Williams, Nicole Kidman and Taylor Swift. “She’s got such an interesting face,” he marks about the latter.
Galella will also be covering the annual Met Gala again this year (it’s the only event he ever covers) and, as always, cannot wait to see the women in beautiful dresses and perhaps one longtime subject of his lens, Mick Jagger. Galella laughs, “usually he decides to show up.”
Check out the digital gallery open today and the gallery below for some shots you wont see on display at The Row NYC.