Paparazzi photos are honest looks at celebrities

September 14, 1997|By Glenn McNatt

PAPARAZZI have gotten a bad name since the death of Princess Diana, but that didn't stop New York's Robert Miller gallery from opening a show dedicated to tabloid photography last week.

The show presented about 60 vintage photographs from the genre's golden age during the decade 1954-1964, and a like number of fashion and society pictures taken between 1964 and 1997.

Gallery officials were at pains to point out the show had been planned months ago with no intent to capitalize on the publicity surrounding Diana's death.

Still, the coincidence was fortuitous because it focused attention on paparazzi pictures as a distinct genre with its own history and aesthetic.

Since the photos are being exhibited in an art gallery, the show also implicitly raises the question in what sense, if any, such pictures can be considered art.

The term "paparazzo" was invented by Italian film director Federico Fellini for a free-lance photographer named Tazio Secchiaroli, whom Fellini met while working on the screenplay for his movie "La Dolce Vita" in 1958.

Secchiaroli and his friends had created a minor scandal that summer by provoking, then snapping pictures of, celebrities along Rome's Via Veneto. One of their targets was Egypt's deposed King Farouk as he sat with two young women at an outdoor cafe.

"We found," Secchiaroli later recalled, "that with small events created on purpose, we could earn 200,000 lira, while before we got 3,000."

Fellini wrote a Secchiaroli-like character into his movie and called him "Paparazzo," after the name of one of the director's most shameless childhood friends. Soon the plural form of the word came to signify the legions of "assault photographers" who make their livings stalking the rich and famous.

Yet looking at prints from the 1950s last week, I was struck by how little, for all their vaunted intrusiveness, paparazzi pictures actually tell us about their famous subjects.

Two teen-agers in the back seat of a car, for example, turn out to be Princess Caroline of Monaco and her brother, Albert. Yet they look so generic they might be bored adolescents anywhere.

Another picture shows a now-forgotten actress fainting on the set of a now-forgotten movie. Three nondescript men attempt to lift her to her feet as a crowd of equally nondescript bystanders looks on.

Other shots show people coming out of doorways, getting off planes, sitting at tables. Taken together, they document an obsessive fascination with the banality of celebrity whose cumulative effect is sheer stupefaction.

As for aesthetics, the pictures at first seem devoid of artifice and technique. Some are blurry and out-of-focus. Their compositions are catch-as-catch-can. Even the posed pictures have an oddly random look, like the images from a surveillance camera or a child's Polaroids.

And yet it is in their defiantly anti-aesthetic stance that, for me at least, the beauty of these pictures lies. They have a freshness, even innocence that belies and, ultimately, transcends the crass commercial purposes that gave rise to their making.

The invention of photography made possible, for the first time in history, an imitation of reality produced wholely by mechanical means. As a consequence, we accept the "truthfulness" of the camera image as if it were some natural phenomenon, like the reflection in a mirror.

Of course we know a photograph is nothing of the sort, that the old saw "The camera never lies" is little more than a sentimental fiction. We are conscious that any image can be manipulated in order to manipulate us, and that seeing is not always believing.

And so, ironically, it is the very artlessness of the paparazzi photographs that lend them a weird credibility. We are no longer much taken in by the painstakingly crafted and choreographed "official" images of public figures, simply because we suspect that such images have been designed to conceal at least as much as they reveal.

But we are still willing to believe that the fleeting image snatched from some celebrity in an unguarded moment contains an irreducible grain of truth.

That, I think, accounts for the fascination with paparazzi pictures among ordinary people, and it is why I cannot go along with the pious chorus now demanding more severe restrictions on the types of pictures photographers can take of famous people.

For all their repetitiousness, tastlessness and banality, paparazzi pictures are also psychic defenses against the ubiquitous claim that, while all people are created equal, some people are more equal than others.

They are the democratic antidote to the patronizing, condescending attitude of the upper classes. They assure us that, for all their money, glamour and fame, rich people pick their noses, too.

They are not really any better than the rest of us, after all.

Pub Date: 9/14/97

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