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Caught in their sights

Savvy and chutzpah pay off for paparazzi.

June 04, 2005|Gina Piccalo | Times Staff Writer

L.A.-based master paparazzo Ramey told Howe war stories of the August weekend in 1969 he spent locked in a rat-infested boathouse to get exclusive photos of Richard Burton and Liz Taylor on their yacht. Steven Ginsburg, a Santa Monica bartender-turned-paparazzo, talked about the terrifying 120-mph car chase led by Affleck through Georgia, jumping curbs and cutting through parking lots.

Mustafa Khalili, a London-born Palestinian who dreams of being a war photographer, described being attacked by Kid Rock and nearly pushed into oncoming traffic when he tried to shoot the performer and Pamela Anderson after a concert. And after Marlon Brando knocked five of his teeth out, Galella would shoot the actor only while wearing a football helmet.

"We're not in this job to make friends with them," Ginsburg told Howe.

The profession is colored by swagger, but the ethics of the paparazzi vary according to the photographer. Some refuse to shoot the children of celebrities. Others shoot what they know will sell, no matter what. Many paparazzi prefer to capture the stars when they're unaware of the camera, but few shy away from confrontation.

Still, there can be misgivings: Even paparazzi have feelings.

"At the end of the day, we're all normal, and the sad thing about these superstars now is that it's so hard for them to be," longtime London-based photographer Duncan Raban told Howe. "Does the paparazzi stuff make them into bigger stars? I guess it does, but I really do genuinely feel sorry for them."

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Increasing numbers

Most paparazzi work in Los Angeles. The stars live here and the city's car culture and warm weather create more colorful images of lightly clad celebrities out and about. Paparazzi eat and breathe their work, scoping sidewalks, windshields and cafes for famous faces. They live in their cars, sometimes staking out celebrity homes for days or weeks at a time, hoping to catch that "morning after" shot of the couple of the moment.

And while this business has always been competitive, the circle of paparazzi working in L.A. has increased in 10 years from a handful of photographers to scores of them. There are dozens of paparazzo agencies in L.A., vying for images of about 50 A-listers, which makes it much more difficult to land the high-value exclusive photos.

In fact, Griffin believes the photographers are so hungry for them that the environment is primed for another paparazzo-involved tragedy like the Paris car accident that killed Princess Diana in 1997. Earlier this week, Los Angeles police arrested 24-year-old Fame Pictures Inc. contractor Galo Cesar Ramirez on suspicion of felony assault with a deadly weapon for allegedly intentionally crashing his car into Lohan's Mercedes during a rush-hour chase on West 3rd Street in Los Angeles.

In April, Jennifer Lopez narrowly avoided a car crash when, she says, a paparazzo cut off her driver. Later that month, as Reese Witherspoon left her gym, she was swarmed by paparazzi, who, police say, nearly forced her off the road as they followed her home and blocked access to her front gate when she arrived.

"The demand has created a lot of cowboys and caused less-reputable people to come out to this town," says Griffin, a Brit who's been L.A.-based for 15 years. "Now I'm having to send my photographers out of town."

Consequently, the paparazzi "are spotting each other as easily as they spot the celebrities," says Grossman. If one photographer takes off from a location suddenly, he's sure to have a competitor close at his heels.

For that reason, the real pros -- the independents -- avoid the usual celebrity haunts like the Ivy on Robertson Boulevard because so many other paparazzi stake out the place. Instead, they rely on their sources to tip them off to the whereabouts of stars, from out-of-town hotels to airport terminals to parks and even hospitals.

"I carry lots of cash with me just to pay sources who have good information," says Griffin.

Tabloids and magazines often pay paparazzo agencies an hourly rate to shoot a specific assignment, such as a celebrity wedding or a star's visit to the Kabbalah Centre. But photographers also generate their own stories and then later negotiate prices with publications and TV shows all over the world. Us Weekly director of photography Brittain Stone told Howe that the magazine receives 45,000 to 50,000 images each week, three-quarters of which are paparazzo shots.

Legions of amateurs, wielding digital and cellphone cameras, routinely pitch their photos to the media themselves. While publication of these photos is still relatively rare, this burgeoning group adds to the already swelling ranks of professionals. Howe's book details the case of one unnamed amateur who happened to get married the same night in the same Las Vegas chapel as Britney Spears and Jason Alexander, her first husband of just 55 hours. He got photos of the newlyweds and sold them for about $300,000.

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