PRINT November 1997



I LOVE PAPARAZZI. Perhaps I should qualify that statement. I know none personally. I’ve never been accosted by one. I’ve never stood on the blitzkrieg flash’s receiving end. (However, at press events, I’ve been bumped against, jostled, and pushed aside by jutting telephoto lenses.) I assume—wrongly?—that most paparazzi are pushy men, and I don’t like to be pushed around; nonetheless, I love paparazzi. They resemble (in a cheerfully debased form that nevertheless remains true to the high original) a kind of perverse artist I’ve long held dear—the artist who doesn’t merely represent a desire, pilgrimage, or inquiry but performs it, and thereby crosses the risky borderline between mimesis and praxis. Such border crossers (Montaigne, Sade, Proust, Freud, Woolf, Artaud, Leiris, Cornell, Schneemann, Sherman, Goldin) use their bodies, memories, organs, fantasies, and friends as more than fodder. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to name any contemporary writer or artist I respect who doesn’t to some extent put forward his or her body as the work’s ground. This offering of the body is hardly essentialist; rather, it acknowledges that for the practice of art to mean anything now, it has to hurt. It can hurt the viewer. But first, the process of coming into the artwork, of arriving at it, must wound the artist, and I, at least, demand to see the wound.

Paparazzi are not a spectacularly wounded bunch. Indeed, after the tragic death of Princess Diana, they have been branded murderers.

We use the word “paparazzo” rather carelessly: I, for one, use it because it’s snazzy. Despite the pleasures of saying “paparazzo” when we mean “taker of candid celebrity photographs,” we should understand that the paparazzo is a fiction, not a vocation; it is a complicated cultural construction, composed certainly of recognizable behaviors but also of misty projections. Like “flaneur,” “sadomasochist,” “vegetarian,” or “abstract expressionist,” “paparazzo” describes a practice, but also a refined, phantasmatic field of images, allegiances, and disavowals.

But let’s happily pretend for a moment that the word “paparazzo” uncritically identifies certain photographers deemed to be an unethical, combative, pathological species. How are paparazzi connected to the exemplary artists I’ve praised? Paparazzi may not wound themselves, but they are artists of cauterization. Their images do not leak, spill, break open. Paparazzi record actions—invasions, sightings—that are entirely sealed off by the image thus produced: the paparazzo picture doesn’t parasitically render a something else, philosophically outside the frame of what the picture can hold and prove. As a porn film records not just the sexual act in question but the fact that someone was there to capture it (not just the genitals, say, but the fact that here are genitals I’ve stolen from the Real to bring to you on video), so a paparazzo photograph (often called a “money shot”) steals a vision of celebrity and renders the instant of theft with a necessarily scrupulous and self-impugning candor, an openness about its own unsavory means that goes so far as to be self-wounding. The paparazzo can only condemn himself (the paparazzo, in myth, is always male) with the image he has pilfered: the image is proof of the perforation, the laceration he has committed in the fabric of the decent, the private, the civic. Though the celebrity is the one ostensibly invaded, the paparazzo is also making vivid—making documentary—his own abject status as voleur, voyeur, render of veils: he is publicizing his abrupt ejection from the civilized.

There is thus something beautifully self-staining about paparazzi photos: while the star’s privacy has been invaded (though many paparazzi shots are consensual, the star cheerfully granting the photo op), the paparazzo has willingly taken an ontological pay cut. By exhibiting, selling, circulating the image, the paparazzo says: “Here, I looked where I was forbidden to look. I did it for you. Observe my debasement. The money I receive for this photo allows me to transvalue my ‘lowness,’ and turn my sleazy profession, my bottomed-out vantage point, into a new ‘high,’ higher than yours, hypocrite lecteur.” A paparazzo photo reveals the photographer’s love of lucre, and is in that sense a representation not only of his star prurience (perverted hunger to see a famous person in a private moment) but of his cash fetishism: “Only for a tidy sum did I, paparazzo, so lower myself.” We’re observing, therefore, a fiscal performance. No surprise: art is often a fiscal performance. Warhol never hid from the viewer the role of money as one catalyst of the overdetermined painting; neither, I suppose, did Rembrandt. Stars are even more conspicuous about their indebtedness to money. For example, Elizabeth Taylor in Cleopatra (1963) not only enacts her VIP status, but dramatizes her salary: the $1 million she was paid to star in the film is all she is required to impersonate. This tautological task doesn’t waste her artistry, but seals off the film from the debris of the non-self-reflexive, the non-Liz. In Liz’s performance of the acquisition of money, there’s no messy supplement, no didactic overlay, no civilization: only money, sumptuously embodied, exhibiting its embodiment.

From the exquisite show of paparazzi images recently on view at the Robert Miller Gallery, cocurated by Olivier Renaud-Clément, Franca Sozzani, and Amy Wanklyn, I gleaned two lessons. (Half of the show was devoted to work of the classic, vintage paparazzi, especially Marcello Geppetti and Tazio Secchiaroli, each of whom, at their best, I would not hesitate to compare with Weegee; the other half was a selection of post-1967 fashion and celebrity photographs—much of it by women, including Pamela Hanson and Elisabetta Catalano—that borrowed stylistic features from the earlier work.) The first lesson is the supernatural beauty of the female stars from the great era of Cinécittà and la dolce vita. One feels that the paparazzo arose as a species of photographer in the ’50s less to lay siege to famous people generally than as a logical response to a new form of glamour—the drama of such faces and figures as Sophia Loren, Brigitte Bardot, and Anita Ekberg. Hands down, Ekberg dominated the show. In an 1958 photo taken by Secchiaroli, her face is entirely blanched by a flashbulb that has obliterated and blackened the Roman backdrop. As the gallery’s Alexandra Rowley told me, Ekberg’s face in the snapshot has a commedia dell’arte abstraction, a single mood or humor dominating the mask. That mood is rage: in one Geppetti photo, she aims a bow and arrow at him (she’s been caught in her stocking feet on the pebbly driveway of her Roman villa). Because beauty can’t be described, there’s almost nothing I can say about a face like Ekberg’s, except to note that it is unusually wide; that she seems absolutely in command of the inevitable effect her heightened beauty will have on any sane beholder; and that she seems to have adopted an attitude of patience toward a world that will need a long time to absorb all the meanings and shades she puts forth without apparent premeditation or artifice, although the very fact that her face is on display for us, and that she made a career out of such displays, signals the knowledgeable decisiveness of her self-presentation.

The second lesson of the show: a paparazzo photograph is a reaction shot, and therefore indirectly foregrounds the traumatizing agency and desire of the seemingly invisible paparazzo. (The paparazzo has a few traumas of his own, not the least of which is the star’s indifference to his presence.) The reaction the paparazzo photograph reveals is often anger: the photographer has “gotten a rise” out of the usually composed star (the star may have her boyfriend or bodyguard chase after the photographer, who then takes pictures of the pursuer, or she may herself do battle with the intruder). At the very least, the star will project condescending toleration, itself a reaction to a paparazzo who has had the bad taste to make his presence felt. In many cases, other paparazzi (they travel in flocks) will appear in a shot that ideally, for commercial purposes, would have isolated the star from any appearance of a press conference. The most engaging photos—the ones that highlight the paparazzo’s morally ambitious, scarifying art—are those that acknowledge the omnipresent nest of lenses around the star’s body. In Mario De Biasi’s 1956 picture of Brigitte Bardot in Venice, she kittenishly poses for a constellation of cameras that collectively recall the accidental mutant in David Cronenberg’s The Fly (1986): Bardot’s beauty itself is a kind of supranormality that elicits camera attention, but the truly freakish scene-stealers in the photo are the camera organs. No distinction can be drawn between the cyborg-paparazzo’s face and his technological prosthesis. The photographic apparatus is the emblem of his moral decrepitude; he wears it like a Pinocchio nose, or the mark of a branding iron.

The most poignant photo in the show documented the rage not of the star or the paparazzo, but of an unseen viewer: Marcello Geppetti’s 1960 image, captioned JAYNE MANSFIELD LYING ON THE GROUND AFTER HAVING BEEN ASSAULTED BY A WOMAN JEALOUS OF HER BEAUTY, illuminates the quicksand of uncivic drives that form the vanishing ground on which a star must walk. These desires are ours, not the paparazzo’s, and as long as they do not lead to actual assault, they are nothing to be ashamed of—except to the extent that most art objects are things to be ashamed of, which is why we love them. I wish that Geppetti had taken a photo of the woman who assaulted Mansfield; I also wonder how Geppetti knew the cause of the assault. Did the unnamed woman confess to her jealousy before or after pushing Mansfield to the ground? Was there something particular about Mansfield’s style of beauty that led to envy rather than happy identification? I hope, for the purposes of my argument, that it was not the paparazzo himself who knocked over the star.