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Snapshots of Paparazzi's Provocative Past

September 14, 1997|DAVID RICHARDS | THE WASHINGTON POST

NEW YORK — The paparazzi are plainly the villains of the hour, held accountable by the public for the high-speed crash that killed Princess Diana. But could they also be artists in spite of themselves?

That is the underlying assumption of a timely two-part photography exhibit that opened last week at the Robert Miller Gallery. The first part, "Il Paparazzo, 1954-1964," examines some of the fabled photographs of the original generation of paparazzi, who plied their trade along the Via Veneto in Rome, catching movie stars and fallen royalty with their glamour down and their dander up. The second part, "I Paparazzi, 1964-1997," concentrates on contemporary fashion and society photographs, many of them drawn from the archives of Italian Vogue.

The point is indisputable: Paparazzi have changed the way we look at things. We may not like their techniques or their manners. But their provocative, in-your-face style and the immediacy of their intrusive photographs have exerted an influence far beyond the supermarket tabloids.

Most of us don't want to see Princess Diana in a car wreck, granted. But to the extent that few of us are excited by canned stills of movie stars or dutifully posed shots of society figures, the paparazzi have won a major battle. Celebrity, these days, is routinely depicted on the run, in action, off-guard. And what are the fashion models, who stare at us from magazine ads with insolent pouts as if their privacy somehow had been violated, if not part of the paparazzi's legacy?

Before the show opened here, it was subject to what gallery owner Robert Miller calls "intense pre-show interest." Reporters and TV cameramen swarmed through the rooms while most of the photographs still lay on the floor, waiting to be hung. The hullabaloo was so intense that the gallery felt compelled to issue a statement pointing out that the exhibitions had been in the works for eight months and were meant in no way to capitalize on the tragic death of Princess Diana.

There is only one image of her on display. Taken by Marina Schiano, it shows the backs of the princess and designer Ralph Lauren, as he escorts her into a formal dinner in Washington in 1996. The picture couldn't be more discreet.

Such discretion is atypical. In three of the most surrealistic photographs, taken by Marcello Geppetti in the early 1960s, an outraged Anita Ekberg actually goes after the paparazzi outside her villa in Rome with a bow and arrow. Ekberg was a popular target. So were Brigitte Bardot, caught by Geppetti's telephoto lens while she was sunning topless by her St. Tropez pool; Gina Lollobrigida, seen collapsing to the sidewalk in a fainting spell; and Sophia Loren, who manages to look both bemused and flattered by the photographer who is poking his camera through her car window.

History now has it that the celebrity stalkers came into being on a hot August night in 1958 when Tazio Secchiaroli, a freelance newspaper photographer, and several of his peers set out to prowl the streets of Rome. In quick succession, they came upon, photographed and angered the deposed King Farouk and two young women at an outdoor cafe; Ava Gardner and Anthony Franciosa at a second cafe; and Ekberg, dragging her drunken husband, Anthony Steel, out of a nightclub. The resultant scuffles in each case were caught on film and caused a sensation when they appeared in various publications shortly thereafter. "We found," Secchiaroli later said, "that with small events created on purpose, we could earn 200,000 lira, while before we got 3,000."

Two years later, film director Federico Fellini would incorporate a character modeled after Secchiaroli into "La Dolce Vita" and baptize him "Signor Paparazzo." The name apparently belonged to one of Fellini's childhood friends, who liked to imitate the buzzing sounds of pesky insects. A new generic noun was born.

From the start, the paparazzi have both exalted the state of celebrityhood and debunked it. They want to reveal their famous subjects in moments of awkwardness, weakness or vulgarity. They acknowledge the attractions of the high life--the furs, the champagne and the dripping jewels. At the same time, their eye inevitably goes to the torn hose, the smeared makeup and the drunken leer. A love-hate duality characterizes their work and gives tension to their most telling images.

The contemporary half of the exhibition is tame by comparison. The only working paparazzo per se is Victor Malafronte, an American, and his movie-premiere shots of stars such as Diane Keaton and Sylvester Stallone are predictable fan-mag stuff.

The curators want it that way, preferring to focus on the paparazzi "influence."

In the end, if an aesthetic point is made, a raging moral debate is sidestepped. At this remove in time, the efforts of the 1960s paparazzi can be viewed with some nostalgia and even humor.

Princess Diana, however, brings far more disturbing thoughts to mind. The Robert Miller Gallery, playing it safe, has made sure the provocation is safely in the past.

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