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Ron Galella New York





had no girlfriend. The city was my girlfriend,” says Ron Galella of Manhattan in the 1970s and 80s. Galella certainly loved his paramour—obsessively—which is how all of his affairs proudly are. “I’d hit the town every night,” he says, and would drive down from the Bronx. “The routine was to check out Jackie [Onassis] first.” After checking in with his muse, he’d head to film premiers, dinners, art openings, celebrity haunt restaurants like Sardi’s and Elaine’s, and of course the myriad clubs and discos. ““Even if there was nothing going on, there was Studio 54,” he says. He’d head home and develop the film. The next day he would shop the contact sheet around to magazines and newspapers and then the cycle would begin again. This routine lasted until he moved to New Jersey in 1992. “I got a more well-rounded life,” he said. By then he had also married (his wife Betty would sometimes help him on his expeditions). He slowed down and started concentrating on his archives. Galella had won the war of attrition. The aggressive, ever-present paparazzo with stalking tendencies was sitting on a goldmine. Galella, an art school grad, always thought

A spread from Ron Galella’s log book, 1973

that he was an artist. It took a long time for everyone else to realize that he was right. In his nocturnal hunts, Galella captured New York as no one else had—from the melding of every strata of society into the disco demimonde on the same dance floor to the go-go 80s. His subjects were celebrities, but by eschewing the PR step-and-repeat photo-ops he made them real people, and not just the unattainable perfection of the silver screen—oftentimes to their chagrin. His unique shots, certainly of-the-moment, were also of the era. They show a time when celebrities weren’t surrounded by stylists, assistants, PRs, and bodyguards. But more importantly, they reflect an ilk of celebrity that is so alien in these days of reality TV stars, the Internet and cell phone cameras. Now 82, Ron sat down to discuss his life and work at his home in Montville. He was wearing pajama bottoms, a black turtleneck and walked with a cane with an ivory rabbit head-shaped handle. He can uncannily recall the exact date and situation of any photo in his vast collection. “I was always curious of celebrities,” he remembers of his days as a student at the Art Center. “How beautiful are they really in life? I crashed premieres like Guys and Dolls. I saw Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball,

William Holden, about 50 stars. I always had the bug to see celebrities in their true form. My forte is capturing them as they are. I don’t call their name or tell them to look at the camera. I like them doing things so they forget me.” Galella’s method of shooting was to hold out the camera (with a wide angle lens) and not look through the viewfinder. Often crooked, he’d correct the images in printing. “I don’t look through the viewfinder,” he explains. “I look in their eyes. The camera is a machine. You want to look at them person to person.” What was the Bronx like growing up? My father was an old school Italian and my mom was Americanized. She was into glamour and fashion and good clothes. My father was very frugal and had to pay mortgage and was a hardworking man. He worked at Steinway pianos and also made caskets. His hands were double my size. My father and mother never got along. They separated, they never divorced but separated. She was artistic. I took after her. Were you a fan of the stars you would photograph? Did you see their movies or works, or did you just like them for the celebrity? I liked them for the celebrity. I didn’t have time to see their movies. I

“I would come home, develop the film, in the morning make contacts, and sell off contacts. You didn’t have appointments, you just go, you don’t have to call.”

saw Rocky. It was a cold night and the PR let me in and I got pictures of Sly Stallone. But I didn’t have time to see the movies. Now I’m more or less retired, I only shoot the Met gala. Studio 54 is famous for not letting people in. How did you get in all the time? Well I didn’t get in all the time! The first time Steve Rubell barred me, I got pictures of Ali McGraw dancing with a producer and her bare breast and nipple were sticking out and I got that published in Playboy. Steve Rubell was furious. A more decent shot without the bare breast ran in People. So he barred me for a month or two. And later you were banned for a year until the club closed for good. But I’m a guy who never gives up so I covered arrivals and the stage door. I got one of my great pictures, Liz Taylor leaving with Halston and Steve Rubell going into a limousine. Liz Taylor looked really fat and it ran all over—a great picture. I don’t give up easy, I’m an opportunist. And that’s what a paparazzi does. He creates another photo op. You cover the premiere. But after you follow them to the club or the residence and get an exclusive. These are the ones that sell. Another example, Brooke Shields was dating John Travolta.

I followed their limousine to Teterboro airport through the gate and broke security rules and security escorted me out. I didn’t give up. I went around the fence to then a security guy gets in the way and he made the picture. It’s like Henri Cartier-Bresson, the shot with the guy jumping across the puddle. I don’t give up. I try to the end. What was the market like for the photos you would take? I had no staff. I had the car. The car means a lot. Being a papaprazzo you have to have a car. I would come home, develop the film, in the morning make contacts, and sell off contacts. There were at least fifteen movie magazines—Photoplay, Silver Screen, Modern Screen… You didn’t have appointments, you just go, you don’t have to call. They’re glad to see you! You’d do the rounds, they’d pay $1000 a take and you couldn’t supply enough. But you had to have a couple of colors for the cover. This was the 60s and 70s. In 1975 when People came out it destroyed that market. The fan magazines were monthly and People was weekly. Was it ever hard to live in such an atmosphere of negativity, getting yelled at every night by these people? Well I’m thick-skinned and can take a lot of insults.

New York by Ron Galella  
New York by Ron Galella  

This is the first Ron Galella book that focuses exclusively on New York City in the 70s and 80s. The book contains many unpublished images f...