Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Original paparazzi star caught in act

Fifty years ago, an Italian photographer named Tazio Secchiaroli became the symbol of a new generation of photographers. His nom de guerre was Paparazzo and he was the photographic bounty hunter of the Via Veneto in Rome in the 1950s. Secchiaroli was the first of the paparazzi, immortalised by Federico Fellini in his 1960 film La Dolce Vita. Calling himself an “assault photographer”, Secchiaroli sped up and down the Via Veneto on his Vespa, chronicling illicit love affairs, orgies and feasts in papal Rome, then the international capital of cinema, the nobility and Hollywood’s glamour jet set.

Secchiaroli had a nose for news and a highly trained eye that could sum up a whole story in a single picture. He created a style of photography that became the basis of a worldwide and enduring school.

“Secchiaroli sparked the development of a whole new aesthetic in photography,” says the art dealer James Hyman, whose gallery opens Brigitte Bardot and the Original Paparazzi, a show of early pap photography, on Thursday. “There were whole gangs of them speeding around Rome chasing celebrities on their Vespas.”

Secchiaroli was just the best of them, the designated leader of the pack. They shot their subjects close up, sometimes from low angles and often with big flash guns. Most of them were very good photographers who had come out of war reportage, the world from which Magnum emerged. And it is probably no coincidence that the emergence of paparazzi photography coincided with the growth of image-led magazines such as Paris Match. There was a growing audience for their work, hungry for more revealing images.

Until the arrival of this new snatched style of photography, the public had been fed a diet of staged studio portraits of film stars. The Hollywood portrait studios of the 1940s and 1950s understood how much glamour meant and they created images of the stars as idols that were less portraits than a kind of loving embalmment.

Suddenly, with the arrival of Secchiaroli and his ilk, the public were being offered shots of film stars caught out on the street indulging in love affairs, playing games of flouted morals. Here were tantalising glimpses of events that they could not witness and unguarded moments previously hidden, such as the intimate and apparently natural shots of Brigitte Bardot walking along the street in a strappy top and cigarette pants. Bardot was a gift to the paps, savvy to a good shot and providing an incomparable package of legs, bottom, breasts and a geisha-like pout of florid flirtation.

“There is a wonderful innocence to these early Bardot shots,” Hyman says. “Certainly there was complicity between the subject and the photographer. Bardot was usually aware of the camera and was clearly happy for her picture to be taken. Between them they created a whole new image of womanhood, female sexuality and youth fashion.” Before long, paparazzi such as Secchiaroli were providing keyhole views all over the world of the private lives of the famous, and the fundamental voyeurism of modern existence had become one of life’s necessities and inalienable rights.

At the same time there was some much more aggressive work being done. Secchiaroli and his most notorious contemporary, Marcello Geppetti, were always on the lookout for a fresh angle and they began staging little confrontations with their celebrity prey: a sudden flash, an overturned table, a starlet scurrying away. Geppetti was the first paparazzo to hire a helicopter to chase a celebrity. They knew, as their 21st-century equivalents do, that little incidents (whether natural or provoked) produce images that sell. But as Secchiaroli liked to point out to his subjects: “The day photographers will no longer be after you, you’ll be after them.”

Of course, celebrities were not keen on the idea of being blank canvases on to which wily photographers could project either the positive or the negative message of their choice. Bardot was lucky — being so photogenic meant that snatched photographs seldom harmed her reputation. One of her arriving in a miniskirt at a London hotel, for example, searching in her bag for something as a man stares blatantly at her legs, would have done her no harm at all. But the compact worked both ways. While Bardot’s publicity machine notified the press that she would be arriving at Fiumicino Airport, in Rome, on August 4, 1961, enabling Patrick Morin to capture his gorgeous shot of her surrounded by admirers, she also had to suffer the intrusion of the paparazzi photographing her leaving hospital after her attempted suicide.

The tip-off to press photographers was nothing new. Suffragettes in the 1910s had quickly realised that their increasingly audacious acts of public protest had potency only if they were reported and, better, photographed in the press. No act of window smashing, rail chaining or palace storming would be attempted without first contacting news photographers. Being seen to act, oblivious of danger and before the lens of a camera, had obvious political potential.

This innocence did not last long either. During the early 1960s, Harry Benson, the Daily Express photographer, was covering the Tory party conference in Brighton when he noticed Sir Hugh Fraser, his wife Antonia, Lord Jellicoe and Lord Hailsham heading to the beach. He tailed them and from a distance photographed them awkwardly undressing under a beach towel. According to the writer Roger Hargreaves, Fraser spotted him and came over to appeal to his better nature. “Give me your word you won’t publish pictures of us undressing,” he demanded, which Benson duly did. However, Fraser had rung Lord Beaverbrook, whose curiosity was now aroused. The press baron demanded to see all Benson’s photographs and the next day pictures of the Tory leadership undressing on the beach were splashed across the front of the Daily Express.

Nowdays the paparazzi scoop is obtained from long ambushes, pursuits, disguises and from situations provoked by photographers, but the influence of Secchiaroli and the early paparazzi photographers is still profound. When Lady Diana Spencer’s blossoming relationship with the Prince of Wales leaked out to the press in the summer of 1980, the 19-year-old was ill-prepared for the media onslaught. She was followed every time she left her flat or got in or out of her car. Quickly nicknamed Shy Di, she soon figured out how her paparazzi adversaries ticked and in time learnt how to eclipse her husband. But the Princess hadn’t reckoned on the destructive power of the paparazzi. Her marriage unravelled in the glare of their flashguns and then, in 1997, she died in a car crash in Paris after her driver attempted to escape from the aggressive paparazzi on her tail.

Fashion and other advertising photography have now taken on the edgily neurotic feel of paparazzi photography. Helmut Newton, Guy Bourdin, Richard Avedon, even sometimes David Bailey, appropriated the methods of the “assault photographers”, using devices such as the bounce of a flashgun in a mirror. Bailey recently shot his fourth wife, Catherine, behind bars like an illicit glimpse, just as Secchiaroli shot Bardot in 1963 on the set of Le M├ępris, languishing behind bars like a caged animal.

Fifty years on, the work of the paparazzi has changed. The market is immeasurable and the appetite insatiable for shots of celebrities off guard. Week after week, magazines such as Heat and Now publish unsightly photographs of brittle celebs, their weight yo-yo-ing, armpits sweating, bikinis straining. Mischa Barton was recently snapped leaving a psychiatric clinic and Kerry Katona was photographed in an unpretty heap on the pavement.

“The quality of the paparazzi photograph has declined since the 1950s and 1960s,” Hyman says. “These days the paparazzi might hold up their camera over a crowd of heads and hope for the best. Or members of the public might snap celebrities on their camera phones and send them in for publication. The photograph is not good and the subject is not interesting.”

The zoomed-in shots of celebrity cellulite are certainly not glamorous, although some would argue that they are a welcome antidote to the depressingly airbrushed and unreal photographs that appear in other glossy magazines. In spite of legal attempts to curb their behaviour — two years after being arrested for punching a photographer outside a nightclub, Lily Allen obtained a court injunction in March, restraining the paparazzi from harassing her — for as long as our obsession with the lives of celebrities remains strong, in magazines or, increasingly, online, it looks as if the paps will continue to rule.

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