In an ironic twist of fate, infamous and controversial celebrity photographer Ron Galella is the subject of HBO’s Documentary Films’ ‘Smash His Camera,’ the 2010 Sundance Film Festival winner for best director. Academy Award-winning documentarian Leon Gast aimed to chronicle the life of the self-described paparazzo ‘superstar.’ In the process, the director sparked a never-ending but relevant debate about privacy versus free speech and whether or not Galella should be glorified for his ‘hit-and-run’ celebrity photography.
‘Smash His Camera’ brilliantly records Galella’s rise as a paparazzo who started as a U.S. Air Force photographer before he started using imaginative and deceptive ways to snap pictures of the rich and famous. Gast also interestingly weaves Galella’s back-story with his secrets on how to successfully photograph celebrities at events. His critics call these tricks, which include dressing for the occasion and forging credentials, ‘tips on being sociopathic.’
The documentary also heavily focuses on Galella’s love and passion for shooting former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis between 1967 and 1982. The name of the film came from Onassis’ order to her Secret Service men to ‘Smash his camera’ while he was shooting her in a park in New York City.
Gast made a brave, but smart, choice when he decided to document the life of such a despised photographer. While he may receive backlash for trying to glorify the life of someone whom many celebrities look down upon, Gast wisely choose to show fellow photographers, lawyers and magazine editors who both support and shun the persistent paparazzo. Photographer Neil Leifer, for example, called Galella a stalker, while Peter Howe, the author of ‘Paparazzi’ and the former photography editor of Life Magazine, called him “Passionate, which separates him from others.”
It was also sensible choice to include Galella’s pictures throughout the documentary, to show his passion. After seeing his pictures, which are shown in New York galleries, are housed in a permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art and have been published in two coffee table books, it’s easy to see that while he has gotten some great shots, a lot of times he captured images by pure luck. Galella said he often times just shoots and snaps the pictures without even looking through the camera, so he doesn’t always get the best shots; in that respect, his endless determination and hard work are as much to credit for his icon status.
Gast also made a smart decision to switch back and forth between Galella’s personal and professional lives. Viewers are able to see that his mother’s love for movies and entertainment pushed him into taking pictures of celebrities and his never-ending desire to capture those who put themselves into the spotlight.
With the exception of Galella’s favorite subject Onassis, Gast didn’t focus on one aspect of the photographer’s life for too long, which helped viewers get to know him better and see what it’s like to be a paparazzo. While shooting the former first lady is his claim to fame, the rise of Studio 54 and the subsequent explosion of popularity in celebrity journalism helped spark interest in his work.
Now in his late 70s, Galella seems to be slowing down a bit, as he wants to focus more on selling his books and older prints. He said he feels that all the iconic stars are gone, including Onassis and Marlon Brando. Whether or not he decides to continue taking pictures, the tactics of the ‘price tag of the First Amendment,’ as he’s been called, will continue to spark debate. Anyone interested in seeing what it takes to be a paparazzo will definitely be intrigued by ‘Smash His Camera.’
Written by: Karen Benardello