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Ron Galella, the relentless paparazzo who hounded the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Marlon Brando and Richard Burton during his career but found his photographs displayed in museums and art galleries throughout the world, has died. He was 91.
Galella died peacefully in his sleep Saturday in his home in Montville, New Jersey, his reps announced.
In amassing the world’s largest, single-source photographic archive dedicated to popular culture, Galella shot everyone from Elvis Presley, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Barbra Streisand and Muhammad Ali to David Bowie, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Princess Diana and Taylor Swift.
Many of those he shot brandished a middle finger at him.
His perfect photograph caught an iconic person off guard. He looked at his subjects eye to eye, pre-focusing his camera at 6 feet, set at F8, and holding it near his chest to ensure an interaction with his target.
“You are looking at them person to person,” he said in a 2010 interview. “That is greater than the subject looking at the camera, which is a machine.”
As the biography on his website notes, “Where in-studio and posed party photos had become the norm, and easily mass-produced, Galella subverted the establishment by providing unrehearsed, spontaneous images of real moments, not the scripted pictures the agencies and film studios wanted you to see.”
In the 1970s and ’80s, Galella was famously involved in courtroom battles with Onassis, who said that he made her life “intolerable, almost unlivable, with his constant surveillance.” He countered that he had a right to photograph anyone in public.
In 1972, a judge ordered him to stay 25 feet away from Onassis and 30 feet away from her children, yet he kept snapping pictures of them through 1982. His first autobiographical book, 1974’s Jacqueline, sold more than 10,000 copies; he had 22 books published in all.
One of his most famous photos was “Windblown Jackie,” taken of the former first lady in Central Park in 1973. He proudly referred to that as his “Mona Lisa.”
In 1973 in Manhattan, Galella had five teeth knocked out and suffered a broken jaw at the hand of Brando — he said he was hit with a sucker punch — and later received $40,000 in settlement of a damages suit, he said. He later took to photographing the actor while wearing a football helmet.
Another time, he was beaten up by Burton’s bodyguards and then jailed in Cuernavaca, Mexico.
Born on Jan. 10, 1931, and raised in the Bronx, Galella was the son of a cabinetmaker who made Steinway pianos and coffins. He served as a photographer in the Air Force during the Korean War, then graduated with a bachelor’s degree in photojournalism from the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena.
In 2010, Oscar winner Leon Gast (When We Were Kings) directed Smash His Camera, a documentary of Galella’s life and career that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.
His photographs could be seen at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Tate Modern in London and the Helmut Newton Foundation Museum of Photography in Berlin. Newsweek nicknamed him “Paparazzo Extraordinaire.”
Survivors include his brother, Vincent, and 11 nieces and nephews: Paulette, Linda, Barbara, John, Louis, Richie, Stephen, Anthony, Nicholas, Peter and Gloria. His wife of 37 years, Betty Lou, died in 2017.
Galella said he “just had a passion to photograph. Shoot, shoot, shoot. I just did it and loved it and did it and did it my way.
“You had the satisfaction of shooting the picture. You develop it, you have it in your hands, and it gives you another psychic reward. Then you see it published — that’s another reward. Then you get the check. That’s the final reward!”
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