Federico Fellini named his celebrity photographer character in La Dolce Vita after the buzzing sound of a mosquito. Paparazzo. Since then the name has become synonymous with breed of sleazy photographers out for a quick buck, collectively know as the paparazzi.
One of the greatest photographers of the 20th century knew that the public’s appetite for sensationalism was big business. Arthur Fellig, known to the world as Weegee, was a what we would now certainly call a paparazzo, though the term didn’t exist when he was working in the 30s and 40s. Weegee was no tabloid hack, he was a photojournalist before there was such a thing. Although he was self taught and used only the most basic camera equipment, he invented modern street photography — influencing artists like Gary Winograd and Diane Arbus. The nickname Weegee, which is a phonetic spelling of Ouiji, referred to his almost preternatural ability to be first to story. He even had a makeshift darkroom in his trunk so he could turn around the pictures by the morning deadline. He knew the public loved to see important people doing bad things.
“Names make news,” he says. “There’s a fight between a drunken couple … in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares … But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park Avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news and the papers are interested in that.”
The paparazzi flourished in the decade after La Docle Vita but the next great period for the paparazzi wasn’t until the 1970s. Ron Galella is know as the godfather of the paparazzi, which might be a little tongue and cheek do to his often violent run-ins with Marlon Brando, prompting him to wear a football helmet when he was around the actor. Galella’s most well known feud was with Jackie O. He stalked her constantly, which led to a famous incident where Jackie instructed a secret service agent to smash his camera. He sued and she charged harassment and won a restraining order.
Ron Galella stalks Jackie O
The 90s saw the death of Princess Diana, which was so alarming that there were calls for legislation. The paparazzi began to be seen as part of the problem. But as the tabloid game moved to the internet, the hunger for celebrities being bad only grew.
These days anyone with an iPhone can snap a few shots of Jennifer Aniston eating awkwardly and sell it to the highest bidder. And TMZ is the biggest game in town. Born from scoops such as Mel Gibson’s racist tirade, the Rihanna/Chris Brown domestic violence photos and the infamous Ray Rice elevator video, TMZ is read by 10’s of millions. There is of course an unspoken bond between celebrity and paparazzi — a mutually beneficial relationship between hype and money. TMZ is so huge it has it both ways. Hilton hotels advertises with them, but crotch shots of Paris Hilton are their bread and butter.
These days it seems to be 24-hour Kardashians. The family created by and for the paparazzi. The Kardashian are sharks and the paparazzos their pilot fish.
But any good paparazzo knows that if you really want a good picture you have to make one yourself. Celebrities assaulting aggressive photographers is nothing new but when Young Hollywood is drunk and publicly melting down, the results are spectacular and sad.
That brings us to perhaps the important moment in celebrity paparazzi history. No, not the Kanye fights or that time Bjork went nuts — the greatest episode happened when the lines blurred between paparazzi and celebrity.
In 2007, Britney Spears was at the height of her fame but perhaps her lowest point personally. She was locked in a custody battle with her husband and in and out of rehab. She’d already shaved her head and attacked a photographer with an umbrella earlier that year. But the most interesting paparazzi video ever is simply titled, “Britney Spears’ crazy night with the paparazzi.”
It serves as beautiful meta-portrait of a tabloid world come to life and imploding in upon itself. The video opens with Britney in the middle of the street looking for her camera’s memory card for some reason. In a strange twist she tells the photographers, “I just don’t like it when you get in the way of my pictures.” They apologize and in a daze, perhaps on drugs, she says, “I’m a person just like you.”
Then a smashcut to Britney in a car with one of the paparazzi that had just been filming her. The photog is Adnan Ghalib, a British-born paparazzo. It’s unclear if Britney knew him before the video but there they are, suddenly. The next scene they’re in a drugstore and Britney is trying to find a bathroom. When Adnan goes to film her, she takes his camera. She’s telling him he isn’t on their team anymore. The bathroom is locked and the photographers are flocking around Britney and Adnan tries to keep them at bay. A manager finally unlocks the door and Britney disappears inside. Adnan is left to the answer to the paparazzi who were only moments before (in terms of the video anyway) his colleagues.
The look on his face. He’s stunned. The predator had become the prey. The line between celebrity and paparazzi disappears. We see in one second the birth of a new, self consuming breed: The paparazzi-celebrity. The two dated for a few months and broke up.