You're a Voyeur, I'm a Voyeur

A new exhibition shows how paparazzi photographs simultaneously create celebrity and desecrate it.

Topics: Celebrity,

| weegee is dead; long live Mr. Rat.

That’s what I remember thinking, in the days after Diana’s death, when a paparazzo with the improbably Dickensian name of Romualdo Rat was among the Gang of Seven picked up by the Paris police for tailing the princess’s Mercedes. In the stiffly egalitarian New York Times, which bestows honorifics on serial killers and Nobel Prize-winners alike, the photographer picked up an apt title of his own: Mr. Rat.

Perversely, I couldn’t help but cheer him. I was tired already of the saccharine banalities about Diana; further, I saw her senseless death as a fairly straightforward case of drunk driving — or, in the British usage, “drink driving,” which always makes me envision a martini glass at the wheel of a sporty roadster. You can convince me that paparazzi are bottom feeders and bad customers, and that they make life hell for some celebrities. (If you need proof, rent a copy of “Blast ‘Em,” Joseph Blasioli’s stomach-turning 1993 documentary about “stalkerazzi.” Watching how these men work is nearly as shocking and revealing as watching how meat is made.) But you cannot convince me that they are guilty of murder. If Di’s addled driver thought he was trying to shake armed terrorists, he was very badly mistaken.

In an uncanny coincidence, an exhibit of paparazzi photographs — planned long before Diana’s death — opened last week at New York’s tony Robert Miller Gallery. The show, a glance back at the work of several decade’s worth of photographers like Mr. Rat, has a good deal to say about our fascination with star wattage, and with the informal and unposed “stolen” image. The show also chronicles (if not quite as dramatically as Blasioli’s documentary) the often uneasy relationship between celebrity photographers and their frequently unwilling prey. Like paparazzi pix themselves, the show is a guilty pleasure.

The photographs in “Paparazzi,” virtually all of them in black-and-white, date from the mid-1950s to the present. (The show’s final image is one of Diana, seen from behind, walking arm-in-arm with Ralph Lauren.) But the bulk of these images are from the late ’50s and early ’60s, surely the golden age of glamour in America. These weren’t just the Camelot years but the dawn of the jet set; indeed, many of the photographs depict celebrities stepping smartly off airplanes. The Italian photographer Luigi Leoni’s silvery images (all from 1960) of Eva Peron, Maurice Chevalier and actress Anna Magnani arriving at the Rome airport feel almost like formal portraits; the scenes are as ritualized as press conferences.

This was an era before zoom lenses and rat-a-tat-tat speed drives, when a huge pop of light from an outsized flashbulb cast itself over a subject as if the moment were a baptism. A photograph like Marcello Geppetti’s “Anita Ekberg in Her Convertible Mercedes With a Friend, Via Veneto,” taken one night in Rome in 1960, is an ample reminder of how moving true glamour, against all of our better instincts, can be. It helps to contrast this photo with a more recent image, a few feet away from the Ekberg shot, of singer Mariah Carey with her boss and former husband Tony Mottola; the pair look like they’ve been smuggled in from a Holiday Inn lounge act.

It’s no surprise that this show leans heavily on Italian photographers. The term paparazzi itself derives from a character in Fellini’s 1960 movie “La Dolce Vita,” a celebrity chaser named Paparazzo. One of the shocking things about this show, however, is how composed and artful many of these snapshots seem to us now. Partly this is nostalgia at work; partly it is simple talent. Geppetti’s 1962 photograph of director Michelangelo Antonioni and actress Monica Vitti fighting off a young photographer, for example, or Tazio Secchiarolli’s image, from the same year, of Fellini on the set of “8 1/2,” resonate like works by artists who have received far more acclaim. The photos feel like art, and they are priced like it. Secchiarolli’s Fellini shot is offered, in the show’s catalog, for $2,400.

Geppetti’s image of an angry Antonioni isn’t the only photograph here that depicts celebrities tangling, Sean Penn-style, with paparazzi. There’s a wonderful series of images by Secchiarolli in which Anita Ekberg’s James Bond-ish boy-pal Anthony Steel chases the photographer down the street. (Secchiarolli evidently kept shooting away.) Another series of Ekberg photos, these by Geppetti, shows the actress confronting paparazzi with a bow and arrows. A small notation in the gallery’s catalog reads: “Original arrows available for sale upon request.”

Writers and intellectuals have rarely been targeted by paparazzi — never mind the fact that both Susan Sontag and Philip Roth made the cover of Vanity Fair in the pre-Tina Brown early ’80s — and this is probably good for all of us. So it’s a bit of shock to stumble across photographer Dino Pedriali’s three very nude, very intrusive photos of the late writer Pier Paolo Pasolini taken through a large picture window in 1975. In the first, a hunky Pasolini reclines nude on a bed reading a book — his pose resembles that of a Playgirl centerfold — his manhood quite in evidence. In the second, he’s spotted the photographer and is leaping up in alarm. In the third he stands, defiantly naked, glaring out of the window with his face pressed against the glass. I walked past shaking my head and counting my blessings; at least it wasn’t a dangling Dean Koontz.

The spookiest and most resonant photo in the exhibition is without a doubt a 1960 Marcello Geppetti picture of Jayne Mansfield, taken near Rome. The image is titled, poignantly, “Jayne Mansfield Lying on the Ground After Having Been Assaulted by a Woman Jealous of Her Beauty,” and it shows a dazed, hurt-looking Mansfield on the street, in a white dress, surrounded by men who are about to help her to her feet. It’s a shot that resembles the famous photograph of Robert Kennedy following his assassination in 1968, and it’s the one that sticks with you and makes you uneasy as you leave this exhibit.

It wasn’t a photographer who physically assaulted Mansfield — yet she, like Diana, was attacked in a different manner almost daily because of her beauty and fame, caught in a crush of attention. It’s possible to believe that Mr. Rat didn’t kill Diana and still recognize that, for the photographers — and, by extension, for all of us — the line between love and hate doesn’t really exist any longer.

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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