Studio 54 was the stuff of legend when I was growing up. Luckily, at the tender age of fourteen and with four older sisters, I was privy to a New Year’s Eve experience there complete with Two Tons of Fun singing “Its Raining Men ‘’ backed by the Boys Choir of Harlem in Blue Face. It was a time without cell phone cameras. In fact it was a time without cell phones period. The only documentation of such outrageous cultural extravaganzas was through the few steady and obvious paparazzi that made the scene. The best of which, was Ron Galella.
Looking back at this work now from the “Disco Years” and other periods I realize that his photographs were not just tabloid fodder. They were carefully planned in their composition by a lenseman that loved every moment of what he was doing. The results were extraordinarily crafted, timeless images that captured moments of the 20th century that would have otherwise been lost forever.
On the drive out to his mini mansion in New Jersey my mind was swirling with the many distasteful labels used in the past to describe Ron Galella, “Leech” and “Creepo” to name a few. I was not sure what to expect. As I waited for him in his living room, Mick Jagger, Elizabeth Taylor, Bianca Jagger, Jack Nicholson, and of course, Jackie O, were all there to keep me company. Even the infamous football helmet he wore to protect himself after Marlon Brando punched him in the mouth shattering five teeth, was on display. Galella believes the assault had less to do with him asking Brando for a picture and more to do with Brando’s protectiveness of Jackie Onassis with whom Galella had had a 20-year paparazzi relationship. This was mainly a way to make a living, but it also developed into a small obsession ultimately ending in a court order banning him from his muse forever. Although it sounds somewhat untoward, considering today’s standards of relentless aggression, it was almost romantic and certainly nostalgic, having produced some of the most beloved images of Mrs.Onassis on record.
As I sat admiring the dozens of stunning hand-printed photographs lining the walls in his cathedral-like living room, Galella entered the room. I was surprised to see he was an elderly gentleman who walked with a cane. As we spoke, his love of creativity and dedication to quality shone through his every word. The moment he sat down, his much older dark room technician entered holding a tray lined with a water-soaked image of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. He asked Galella for his instructions, “a little lighter on her chin, bring out the background”. With a wave of his hand the technician retreated to the basement darkroom to fulfill his duty. “We just discovered this one in the archives: another treasure”. Oddly, this simple exchange brought tears to my eyes. For that brief moment, time stood still.
October 7, 1971: New York – Jackie Onassis and Ron Galella on Madison Avenue. Photo © Ron Galella, Ltd.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I understand you are originally from New York City?
RON GALELLA: Yes, I was born in the North Bronx. I graduated high school with an academic diploma, majoring in art. I was going to be an artist and my first job was working for the Associated American Artists, in New York, working with clay. That was on 42nd street and 8th Ave. It’s torn down now. It’s the bus stop, the bus terminal…Port Authority. Haha. So what happened is, I became acquainted with New York. You know I was from the Bronx and here was Manhattan…You’re blushing. What are you blushing for?
CHRISTINA LESSA: You remind me of my father.
RON GALELLA: Wow! You’re emotional. You’re moved..hahaahaha. That’s good… that’s good. It means you understand.
RON GALELLA: So anyway, as I worked as a ceramic artist, I sculpted my heroes, and my big hero was Cyrano de Bergerac. I saw that movie and was inspired by Jose Ferrer. I made the sculpture. It’s over there. You can see it later on. It’s up there. And other heroes like Dartanian, and Don Quixote and anyway Cyrano was my big hero, and I sculpted it, and went to the public library on 5th Ave and 42nd street, and I researched. I looked at all the Cyranos, at all the stars that played Cyrano, and I said…well, I liked these boots, I’m going to put these boots on my Cyrano and I like this blouse with the cape, and the ruffled collar and all that, and most of all, the hat. The hat had a white plume, and this to me symbolized freedom of the journalist and the poet. See freedom of the press and the white plume. You remember when he died? He makes a grand laughing gesture. He had laughter on his lips and steel in his heart. It was a great story…I love that story.
So New York City was to me, a great exploration, an adventure to see all these architectures…the historical sites and great food and restaurants. The city was, in a way, my girlfriend. Of course Jackie too was my girlfriend. I was not married. I was single. I would sell pictures in the morning. Mainly to magazines: the TV and movie magazines, like Photoplay and Motion P. There were a dozen of these magazines. It was a big market. I’d sell shots for the cover, like a thousand dollars a take. The National Inquirer was still huge. This was the early 60s and 70s. The Enquirer paid a thousand dollars for a cover, even though it was in black and white, we didn’t have color in those days. So I sold pictures off the contacts in the morning. Right off the contacts! It was very competitive. They loved the pictures. It could be any big star like Elizabeth Taylor, Doris Day, the Lennon sisters they were all hot stuff.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Now, how did that work? Did you mail it? Deliver it?
RON GALELLA: No! I delivered it by hand! They marked it. Then I delivered it. No appointments, you just go! You go in the morning, you gotta get there by nine o clock, because there are a few other photographers there…competition…and it was a great thing. But in 1975, all those magazines went out of business because they were monthly, and People magazine came out in the 70s as a weekly, and that took over. The Star came about and Us Magazine. It all mushroomed into a big media frenzy. What I’m saying is…I’m try to get poetic here…through George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue, we see New York skyscrapers as a symbol of aspiration, glancing sky-bound, reminding me of Gary Cooper, on a skyscraper, in the Fountainhead by Ayn Rand.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How did you learn about photography?
RON GALELLA: In 1951, I faced the draft into the army due to the Korean War. To avoid the army, I enlisted four years in the United States air force. And photography was the closest career to art that they offered. So, I wasn’t a photographer before. I had to buy camera, shot a few pictures to get ready. I applied, and I was accepted. I soon was assigned to Larry Air force base, to the photo school there, and it was basic photography they taught, and I was lucky to go. You had a choice of where you wanted to be stationed. I said anything in the Atlantic, from New York to Florida and I got Florida! I was in the air force over three years, in Florida, most of the time. And this was the beginning of my photo career. In the air force…that’s how I got started. And after discharge in 1955, I went to the Art Center College of Design in Hollywood, majoring in photojournalism, using a GI Bill. So after college, graduating in 58, I went back to the Bronx, my father’s house in the North Bronx, and pursued my career in photojournalism. I built a lab and a dark room in the basement and New York City became my studio, as I knew it would provide me with passion, and success. I was fortunate to have a career doing what I loved, photographing the rich and famous, in the greatest city in the world.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Spectacular.
RON GALELLA: It needs a sound track. Rhapsody in Blue! Woody Allen uses that in his movie! Hahaha. Manhattan something was the movie.
CHRISTINA LESSA: “Manhattan”…that was the title, that’s it. It’s one of the most iconic movie openings of all time.
RON GALELLA: And United Airlines uses it as a theme. So let’s see now, that’s where I left off okay, I free-lanced naturally shooting celebrities on location. It was good that I was born, in sort of poor conditions, because I was motivated. In all my life I was given one toy, a two-wheeled bike. But that was Ok because we were creative and made our own toys and developed our own minds. My father was from Italy, and he was a carpenter. He had two jobs in America, one was making pianos with Steinway, the wood part, and then they closed, he got laid off…and he went to the National Casket Company, which was in Long Island City. That was steady business hahaha. So that’s how I learned how to create with my hands. I was very handy. I did all the landscaping you see in the back, these statues I put up, four statues representing the four seasons. Those five fountains were inspired by seeing and photographing the great fountains of Rome. The Italian gardens I made, and masonry, and I put that tile there, see that tile there, this whole deck I did all of it. I had help with the tile. I had an operation on my back that’s why I need to use a cane, I had stenosis of the back, where the nerves are bunched, and they had to open it up with 5 vertebrae, I had numbness in my feet and legs, I still have it…it released some of it but still its there.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I see, I’m very sorry.
RON GALELLA: And I got some pain, when I bend…you know. So anyway, I married my wife in 79. She was a photo editor and vice president of a publication called, “Today is Sunday”, a supplement to newspapers like the Chicago Tribune. She bought my pictures for her publication and she had a sweet voice. I fell in love with her voice on the phone, but I never met her you know? It was two years later, she gave me assignments, because-as a freelance photographer, paparazzi, you have to invest your own time and money to go to places, but a lot of the time you need an assignment, to get into an event. There was a big event in the Kennedy Center, Superman, with Christopher Reeves. So she gave me credentials and I flew down and as soon as I saw her I said “Oh what a beautiful girl!” and said “Are you sure you’re not married?” and she said “No” and I said “I’m gonna marry you” and I married her in 5 months and she’s here.
April 26, 1977: New York – Halston, Bianca Jagger, and Liza Minnelli attend Studio 54 First Anniversary.
Photo © Ron Galella.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How fantastic!
RON GALELLA: And I made her a paparazzo…she shot pictures, books. She’s a good photographer too…
CHRISTINA LESSA: I understand that she manages the business end of things.
RON GALELLA: She does. I’m the artist more or less, and she is the businesswoman. And she’s vice president of my organization, Ron Galella Limited.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So when you were at your peak, I’m guessing the late 70s, there weren’t that many paparazzi. Did you all know each other? You must have!
RON GALELLA: Yes. Yes. Yes. There was one photographer, another paparazzo, he was from Brooklyn, Polish descent…very nice guy…he married a girl from London. He lives in London now. He still works there. And you see being a paparazzo is lonely, because you have to wait for Elizabeth Taylor, at a hotel, Or Jackie, sometimes for four hours at a time. So it’s good to have someone to talk to, to make time go by. And I had a car. My friend had no car, so I made friends with him. We are friends today. I taught him a lot of things too. But there were very few photographers in the 60s and 70s. Only if there was an event with Jackie, then there were all these staff photographers! There was a big gang bang sort of, but more or less there was very little competition.
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1968: New York – Jimi Hendrix at Martin Luther King Jr. Benefit Concert, Madison Square Garden.
January 28, 1985: Los Angeles – Cyndi Lauper and date at 12th Annual American Music Awards.
1965: New York – Sophia Loren at Dr. Zhivago Premiere Party. Photos ©Ron Galella.
CHRISTINA LESSA: When did all of that change?
RON GALELLA: It started to change when People magazine came in 1975 because at that time even the newspapers didn’t have the “people” column, then they started to have that. They saw the demand for this celebrity industry, and so everything happened with celebrity and LIFE went out of business. Why did LIFE go out of business? Because they concentrated too much on war, disease, negative stuff. People want glamour. Jackie is glamour. I have to define the glamour. It is not just physical beauty, like Jackie had big eyes. But glamour is mystery. Mystery – Jackie had that. She didn’t talk, she whispered. And that created more interest. But that’s what it is…mystery. See Jackie didn’t give a lot of interviews, and she died and people don’t really know her. I have two books on her. The first book, Jacqueline, I gave to her at the end of the trial of 1974. In a way it’s best that I didn’t continue to photograph her because she deteriorated because of her illness with cancer, and she looked bad when other photographers photographed her. That’s the thing about my books: most of my celebrities are young. My books bring back nostalgia. I’m a fool for beauty. That’s what we have in common. Jackie loved beauty and I loved beauty.”
CHRISTINA LESSA: How were you were able to give it to her?
RON GALELLA: The doorman. She got it, because somebody delivered a painting of something later, before she died. And he told me that my book was still on the shelf, on her library shelf. And even the two trials, the pictures that I submitted…I had to submit all the pictures I took of her and her children. They are now in Boston, at the JFK library, they are all there.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So it seems like back in that particular time period there were fewer celebrity focuses, I mean look at the walls here. This kind of went on for a decade or so. You know you had the Rolling Stones, you had all of the Studio 54 crowd, and that went on for a while, and then all of a sudden everyone became their own brand.
RON GALELLA: So that’s what happened it exploded. More and more from the 70s to the 80s the 90s.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I feel like Lady Diana had something to do with that too. That was sort of a phenomenon too.
RON GALELLA: The three biggies were Jackie, Liz Taylor and Princess Diana. Those were the three big celebrities that the paparazzi focused on.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Is there anybody of that ilk today?
RON GALELLA: Well the only ones that come close are maybe like Brad Pitt and Angelina together, and their children.
CHRISTINA LESSA: and, Prince William?
RON GALELLA: Yes, Prince William, you’re right. Probably number one now and the baby. But to me they are not as big as the big stars of yesteryear.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What do you think personally about the way that things have changed, particularly with celebrity, the concept of celebrity, and how people just sort of do it without any process behind it?
RON GALELLA: I think it’s because of the media exploding these celebrities, so called celebrities, become celebrities for doing very little. They are over exposed.
CHRISTINA LESSA: No mystery…
RON GALELLA: No mystery. And they are beautiful until they open their mouths! Hahaha. Lindsay Lohan, Paris Hilton, you name them. They are over exposed and then the real housewives. It’s the same thing, they are beautiful to look at, but as soon as they open their mouths, they’re not so pretty. TV to me is the culprit. Before, in the 30s all the great movies, even the 40s there was no TV. Instead we had great movies and great actresses like Bette Davis. But now, with TV, what happened is, it became so 24/7. They have to fill it up and anybody can be on it. It’s all mediocre, just to fill up time.
February 28, 1979: New York – Grace Jones attends 1978 Disco Convention Banquet at New York Hilton Hotel.
Photo © Ron Galella.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Also a lot of modern day philosophers are saying that irony, and that kind of snarky comic attitude that really developed on television, starting with probably I Love Lucy, depleted the concept of being an intellectual and being a celebrity.
RON GALELLA: Edward R Morrow would turn in his grave if he saw all that is happening. But some things are good. I like the Discovery Channel, they had a guy that became friendly with deer, he fed deer…the deer even licked him on the face. We love deer. We see deer all the time.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Yes you have plenty in your own backyard.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What do you think of the Kardashians …sex tapes and all?
RON GALELLA: They’re sexy, in an odd way. I like to look at them, but they have absolutely nothing to say. I mean sex tapes for fame? To get attention it’s crazy. To me, the world was my studio. I captured celebrities as they really are in their environment. I don’t want them to look at my and give me a phony smile. I like them doing things, preoccupied, you know? That’s what I did. I captured when they forget the camera and they forget the photographer. Phillipe Halsman was a photographer that did the most LIFE covers, over 75, and he had a studio in Central Park West, and after they would shoot the celebrity he had them jump, and they did a book called the JUMP book. In jumping, the celebrity forgot him, the photographer, and the camera, and they did something, they became themselves you see? Always doing something and that’s my forte. I captured celebrities doing things, not posing. Catching their expression, the beauty of their genuine emotions, you see? That’s what I looked for. The studio photographer is the opposite, they have better lighting and better background but most of the time the celebrities are statues. The celebrity is not at ease, they are under pressure, and they become something else. Its not as good.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Of course, but you’re also a trained artist. To be a paparazzo now…all you need is a digital camera.
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January 13, 1985: New York – Andy Warhol attends 1985 CFDA Awards Dinner.
June 7, 1981: New York – Liz Taylor and John Warner attend a party for 35th Annual Tony Awards at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel.
September 15, 1981: New York – Calvin Klein, Brooke Shields, and Steve Rubell attend the gala re-opening for Studio 54. Photos © Ron Galella.
RON GALELLA: Yes. Most of them are serious hustlers even convicts! The difference is I’m an artist in the way I studied art, I even drew and I did painting and sculpture. Being an artist you learn from the masters.
Composition, color…so I apply that to the photography, that’s what is great. I have a passion for it and that’s why I love it, because I have full control. I shoot a lot of times not looking through the lens, through the viewfinder that’s with the wide-angle. I always have two cameras, one with the wide angle, black and white, and the other color with Telephoto. They’ll pose when they see me. You have to get the expression. That’s the great thing about cameras. Get the expression with that shutter speed. That’s the art of photography.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I noticed you have a whole tribute wall to Andy Warhol here.
RON GALELLA: Yes. Yes.
CHRISTINA LESSA: What was that like to garner his respect?
RON GALELLA: We had the same disease—we wanted to cover everything. There were so many events in New York that we would want to cover. And we exchanged information at something, he told me where he was last and if there was a big name I would go there to cover it and all that. I would tell him what I covered. It was always nice. Very few photographers shot him, but I shot him. Just the way he looks is interesting. Pale face and wigs, he was interesting. He took pictures of me a lot of times, and I took pictures of him. Other photographers ignored him for the most part you know, and I was always shooting everybody. Like an example, at the Beverly Hills Hotel, there was a Doobie Brothers party. We were shooting outside, the paparazzi, and some fans shot a couple that were standing nearby and I didn’t know who they were, but I said they must be somebody because these fans know them. That was in 1975, I shot that, and it was spotted by one of my books. They spotted it in my contacts and I printed it for the book and that was in 2010. Guess who it was? It was Don Johnson 28 years old with Melanie Griffith 14 years old!
CHRISTINA LESSA: Wow.
RON GALELLA: Great shot, I didn’t know who they were. There are lots of shots in my files that I still don’t know who they are.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Were you part of Andy Warhol’s factory at all?
RON GALELLA: No. I went there after he died. There was a gathering of his stars and all that. I should have. He would have invited me if I had asked him but I never went to his factory. He admired me too I think. He called me his favorite photographer. The reason is we were both interested in the same people, Jackie, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis etc. And also because I was a more aggressive in getting the pictures and he was not, he was shy. He would be the subject. He was not very aggressive.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You have lived through the time where photography wasn’t really considered a fine art, and now it is.
RON GALELLA: Thomas Hoving said that I wouldn’t be known 50 years from now and all that, and my answer to that is that Thomas Hoving was a curator for the Metropolitan Museum in the 70s and he collected paintings in Europe for the Metropolitan Museum, and he does not consider photography the art of today. See, and I do of course. That was his perception. I think he was wrong. Photography is the modern art. Paintings and sculptures are the yesteryear. Today, a camera could capture an instant expression on a face, and a painter cannot do that. It takes a professional to know that timing is the main thing. Timing is the essence. And that’s why a good example is my picture of Jackie, my Windblown Jackie. That is my most famous picture and most sellable picture in galleries. How I got that picture was, there was a model, Joyce Smith, who lived near Jackie off 88th street, and she needed a portfolio picture, so I picked her up and I said lets go to the park, right across from Jackie. I figured this was 4 o clock in the afternoon, maybe I’d get Jackie jogging and make some money, because I wasn’t going to make any money with this girl. I don’t think she even paid me. I was a fool for beauty. I shot so many beautiful girls. Anyway I took pictures of Joyce Smith on her way out of the park, with Jackie’s apartment right across the street. Then we saw Jackie coming out the back door on 85th and we followed her and Joyce couldn’t believe it. And then Jackie turned North on Madison so when I reached the corner, I didn’t take the photo yet. I hopped a cab, a very good smart move, see, because if I ran after her she would have put on her glasses and I would never have captured that picture. Never. So I hopped a cab for 2 dollars and caught up to her on 90th street. I shot two pictures of her walking and she didn’t hear me, or the shutter, because there was a lot of noise from the traffic. And then luck was with me. The driver of the taxi blew his horn! I didn’t even tell him to blow his horn! He was interested in Jackie on his own, and Jackie turned and that’s how I got that picture…she turned and she didn’t know it was me because I had the camera in my face and then as soon as I got out of the taxi she recognized me and put on her glasses and I got her for one more block shooting. Then on 91st street she made a left going west. Now, before, I gave one of my cameras to Joyce Smith, pre-focused, at 15 ft I said shoot me with Jackie. She got those two great shots of me going after her. Then Jackie turned she was pissed because Joyce Smith was laughing. She was thrilled that she was shooting Jackie. Then Jackie turned around to me and said, “Are you pleased with yourself?” I said, “Yes, thank you.”, and I left. She was pissed because I got what I wanted and she heard Joyce laughing.
And anyway that picture has what I call the paparazzi approach. In my letterhead I said, photography with the paparazzi approach. I’ll give you a letterhead later. By paparazzi approach I mean, exclusive pictures, the off-guard, spontaneous, no appointments, you hide and you wait. That photo has all the qualities of the paparazzi approach—the composition is great, over the shoulder, sexy, showing her butt and her breasts, and the hair—no make up…no hairdo. That’s great.
CHRISTINA LESSA: So after you took the shot how long was it before you had it processed? And knew that you had something?
RON GALELLA: The same night. I went home and I processed them and I could see it. Oh I got it.
CHRISTINA LESSA: How many times have you sold the ‘Mona Lisa” Jackie shot?
RON GALELLA: Oh, too many!
CHRISTINA LESSA: A thousand?
RON GALELLA: Oh well, a thousand I don’t know about a thousand…you’re close maybe. If you count all sales it could be. When it comes out in LIFE everybody wants it. Paris Madge, wants it, Stern in Germany, London, everybody gets it. I compare that to the Mona Lisa. The Mona Lisa is the most famous picture in the world. Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The reason why it’s great is because it has a smile in the eyes and the lips you see? The beginning of the smile. And that’s what I got here. That’s why I call this my Mona Lisa. Most people shoot too late. They shoot when the smile is over. When the smile is over it is not as interesting. It doesn’t hold the future.
CHRISTINA LESSA: I wanted to know what you think about paparazzi today, and different rulings about not being able to shoot stars children and things of that nature? And sort of what it has become?
RON GALELLA: Yea. Well, first of all paparazzi today primarily do it for money.
RON GALELLA: I have always considered myself an artist, and I do it for my love of the craft. Photography, it’s a magic medium that is beautiful. I love it. You got control. Shooting to the darkroom, prints. It gives you a psychic reward, to accomplish something. But the photographers doing it for money and when I shot it was easy. It was one on one with room to move about and get good shots and lighting, and good composition. But today, it’s too many of them. They are in each other’s way. I would try to go where the paparazzi are not, either their apartment or their hotel, or the airport. In LA we used to go to American Airlines and just wait. The celebrities used American Airlines. We waited for whoever was coming off. Sometimes you’d get a tip from some publicist, but a lot of times we would just wait. Now, there are too many of them, not just the photographers, there are too many fans, too many bodyguards in the way. They bombard them night and day these people. I only got Jackie 20 times in 1970 – that was my best year – 20 times, either alone or with the children.
But today they are around the clock, day and night shooting Halle Berry or whoever with their children. Gangbanging I call them, where they swarm around celebrities looking for negative things. The whole tabloid viewpoint changed negatively because they look for warts and all. They look for cellulose on their legs and their fat. It’s ugly. I look for beauty, and it’s terrible that the paparazzi and the market have turned to just negative ugliness and vulgarity for profit. What a terrible thing.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Do you do any work with philanthropy? Do you have any causes that you’re interested in?
RON GALELLA: Well, we donate to my college, Arts Center College. We gave $50,000.00 last year, and they have all my books. I give my books for their library, you know (haha). And all the galleries that represent me, I give them my books. Not just for showcase, but also they could order any print from the books and I could supply them with prints.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You have an amazing archive!
RON GALELLA: I always come back with something from an assignment. I relate it to my time in the air force. I was a photographer in the air force and we developed the films of the pursuit planes, gun cameras. And that is evidence that they were there, that they shot down planes. So you know it is evidence. They come back with something…the truth…its there. So I always like to come back with something. But as far as photographing, I was a workaholic. I was a marathon man. I have tremendous files right now. I’m 82 years old, and I’m still mining gold in the files.