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Caught in their sights

Savvy and chutzpah pay off for paparazzi.

June 04, 2005|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

They know Cameron Diaz uses obscene gestures, an open umbrella or a circuitous route to ruffle them. They're wary of Brad Pitt because they know he may lob a hamburger if they get too close. They know Ben Affleck isn't afraid of a high-speed chase and Charlize Theron won't hesitate to fight back when she's in a foul mood. They know that Nicole Kidman is sometimes listed in hotel logs as "Ruby Slipper" and Jude Law as "Mr. Blue." They know Tom Cruise stays hidden unless he's promoting a new movie. And after one of their own crashed his car into Lindsay Lohan's Mercedes on Tuesday night, they know to handle her with kid gloves for a while.

They are the paparazzi, the almost universally despised satellites of the celebrity world whose mission is to capture those rare, unguarded moments that bring the fantasy so achingly close, dissolving the manufactured image and feeding our addictive appetite for voyeurism.

Don't confuse these photographers with the well-groomed gents and ladies who populate the red carpet; by comparison, the paparazzi are commandos. They memorize license plates and celebrity pseudonyms. They pay relatives, personal trainers, valets and airline industry staff for tips. They hire helicopters, yachts, motorcyclists, even submarines to get their shot. Earlier this year, Kidman claimed two paparazzi bugged her Sydney estate.

Their savvy and chutzpah often help confirm the gossip that sells the magazines, boosts ratings and fuels the public's obsession with celebrity. Whether it's Jennifer Garner's pregnancy, Lohan's weight loss or Nick Lachey's whereabouts, the paparazzi's well-paid sources often guarantee them the unvarnished truth, the story behind the hype.

"They almost work as plainclothes cops or spies," says Peter Howe, whose new book, "Paparazzi," takes a thorough look at the "pap" phenomenon. "They're sort of like photography's unwanted relatives. And yet ... when the market for photojournalism is dwindling rapidly, these guys can't produce enough work."

When everything's off the record, as it generally is in Hollywood's image-conscious community, it's the picture that sells the story. While representatives of Pitt and Jennifer Aniston talked about their amicable split and enduring love, those pap images of Pitt, Angelina Jolie and her son Maddox frolicking on a Kenya beach told another tale entirely -- and sold for about half a million dollars.

"They're doing our version of investigative journalism," says Peter Grossman, Us Weekly's news photo editor.

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Tenacity pays off

For his book, Howe spent two years researching the paparazzo phenomenon and interviewing some of the industry's most successful veterans -- Phil Ramey, Ron Galella and Frank Griffin among them -- to understand this driven group. In the process, he learned that independent paparazzi can earn $1 million a year because of their unparalleled tenacity and, many would say, untethered moral code.

Some, particularly the younger photographers, are movie fans who get a thrill from being a part of the machine. Others see nothing but dollar signs. Some say celebrities deserve no privacy; it's the price of fame. Others grapple with their role and even pity the stars. Some are fine dinner companions. Others, he says, are "borderline psychotic." All of them, writes Howe, a former picture editor for the New York Times Magazine and former director of photography for Life magazine, are "blissfully unconcerned with the opinions of others."

"What I most wanted to do was finally understand why we're obsessed with celebrity. Where do these guys fit into the overall picture?" Howe said at a recent interview in Santa Monica. "What is the difference between [renowned street photographer Henri] Cartier-Bresson and a paparazzo who does exactly the same thing except with a specific group of people?"

As it turns out, the differences are quite stark. For example, it's unlikely Cartier-Bresson ever dressed as a llama to blend into a herd grazing near his subject as the National Enquirer's photographers did to capture Michael J. Fox's wedding.

At the same time, though, the paparazzi possess unwavering devotion to their craft, says Howe. Of course they're driven by the lottery-like payoffs a single image can produce, even if it's out of focus and shot from a mile away. But earning their income means enduring almost unceasing vitriol from their subjects and going to extraordinary lengths to get their shots.

"The biggest thing to overcome is when someone turns around and says, 'Get a life,' " says Griffin, a partner with Randy Bauer in L.A.-based Bauer-Griffin, one of the most prominent American paparazzo agencies.

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