PRINT May 2002


Ron Galella

ONE OF RON GALELLA’S candid portraits of Liza Minnelli, taken in 1968 at the premiere of A Dandy in Aspic, shows Judy’s little girl in an amazing white suit, black shirt, and white silk tie, a daisy brooch on her swank lapel, no longer The Sterile Cuckoo, but ready for all the cabaret, life, has to offer. It only seems strange that dandy, pixie Liza-pre Halston, pre-disco, pre-encephalitis, pre-everything else, an awkward inheritance worked into almost iconicity—should ever have been able to deal in the real: i.e., to pull off something that might allow her, for a moment, to be just Liza. Bluntly, because she understood who she was, who she wanted to be, and where she came from, Liza (at least in 1968) knew that PR isn’t stardom. Cf. her recent much publicized comeback as Mrs. Gest. As can be observed in the “official” on-location still (by Brian Aris) of the groom, bride, best man, and matron of honor-roles cast with David Gest, Liza, Michael Jackson, and Elizabeth Taylor—the drama is denial; what one was, is, has done, the labor involved in fame, has been “whited out.” (Call it ontological derangement.) This is why Elizabeth Taylor is in the picture: Once upon a time Liza and Michael had a relation to what Liz still stands for-big old-time Hollywood glamour, power, pleasure, excess (and their ultimate obsolescence—but no longer. Something really delirious is going on when Elizabeth Taylor becomes a reality principle.

It’s fitting that this principle will be put to the test at the Andy Warhol Museum when curator Margery King presents “Off Guard: The Photographs of Ron Galella,” which promises to be an enthralling demonstration, with more than three hundred examples of the American paparazzo’s camera work. (An edited selection of Galella’s images, The Photographs of Ron Galella, appeared last month from Greybull Press.) Fitting because Warhol called Galella his favorite photographer (Andy: “My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous”) and because Galella, who began shooting in the mid-’60s for the National Enquirer and various fan magazines like Photoplay and Modern Screen in the days before People and Us when dinner theater still seemed a viable gig for fairly big stars, was as prepossessed as Warhol by matters of fame and celebs and the question of what “access” means not just to stars but to anyone.

Joan Collins flashing cosmic décolletage. Don Johnson and Baby Melanie Griffith performing the mirror stage of love, twinning themselves, so young, at a post concert party for the Doobie Brothers at the Beverly Hills Hotel, April 4, 1975. Sweet Leif Garrett grinning as he greets the horde of fans, having no inkling they will soon abandon him. Without the morbid energy of Weegee or the dizzy yet masterful an-love of Gary Lee Boas, Galella tracks the glimmer of the mortal within stardom. How do the hermeneutic possibilities of photos snaring subjects in the crosshairs, between what is assumed to separate the person, his or her public persona, and the fictional character he or she stars as, require reconsideration of what is considered “art” and what isn’t? Given the rise of theatricalization and digital manipulation in contemporary photography, Galella’s work may satisfy a craving for some representational tracking of what is taken for the real, but that leaves open the question of why photographs of celebrities loopily accomplish such traction. (US dominance in the production and export of the nonproductive—entertainment as foreign policy—and the merging of “news media,” Hollywood, and politics might begin to explain it: See Joan Didion’s Political Fictions.)

Of course, Galella is still most famous for his Jackie pix. He wooingly stalked her for years. His gazelust for JKO was so intense that any Galella picture of a Kennedy is, by magic default, a portrait of Jackie. Consider his stunner of JFK Jr., pornstar, in low-riding swim trunks on the beach in Hyannis as he offers a definition of the newly resonant term circa 1980, hunk. His shark’s tooth necklace, sharp as his glare, points in the direction of his abs and happy trail. While the pic of Jr.’s solar potency throws new light on what Jackie was drawing attention from with her tactic of running away to distract Galella whenever he tried to snap little JohnJohn or Caroline, it’s shots of Jackie-parts or Jackie-in-motion, perhaps more than photos of proxies for Jackie-absence, that demonstrate Galella’s zeal and erotic drive, since he’s clicking even when his objet fixe has turned her chic back on him or when his view of her is occluded and she’s just a pair of legs watching her daughter play tennis in Central Park or a dark, hypnotic blur stepping through the doors at 1040 Fifth Avenue.

A classic Galella moment: JKO telling her bodyguard, “Smash his camera,” after the paparazzo supposedly lensed her as he grunted lewdly and called her Baby.The smashing bodyguards are now sublimated, called handlers, PR. Galella has no truck with PR: “PRs are the worst. They’re worse than security . . . . Nowadays we’ve got a whole new group of PR people who are groupies themselves. They gape at the stars. They don’t know what it’s about. . . . Even at a premiere the PRs push the stars, they grab them. They act as if the star can’t walk by themselves.” Galella’s always wanted to be there showing that they can, and what when they fall, true stars get back up.

“Off Guard: The Photographs of Ron Galella” is on view June 16-Sept. 1 at the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh.

Bruce Hainley is a contributing editor of Artforum.