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Paparazzi: artists or intruders? A new exhibition celebrates the original snappers' works

The Estorick Collection is displaying the original paparazzi shots of Sixties stars in Rome as a collection of historic and artistic snaps. But were the paparazzi really artists, and can we imagine today’s paps having such an impact?

Richard Burton and Liz Taylor kissing in Ischia, June 1962, taken by Marcello Geppetti (1933-1998). MGMC & Solares Fondazione delle Arti
Richard Burton and Liz Taylor kissing in Ischia, June 1962, taken by Marcello Geppetti (1933-1998). MGMC & Solares Fondazione delle Arti

They get lunged at, insulted, physically harassed and chased. They make their money from the superficial trappings of show business – white smiles, symmetrical features, pricey revelry, designer offspring – and operate in the streets, corridors and VIP areas of downtown celebrity hubs the world over. Stars and paparazzi have a lot in common.

Although reported altercations between cameramen and celebrities can inspire very little sympathy for either party – due mainly to the tasteless intrusion of the snapper and general absurdity of the subject – the struggle of the paparazzo to capture their prized image could one day end up as art.

Franco Nero assaulting Rino Barillari at the Trevi Fountain, 1965, taken by Marcello Geppetti (1933-1998). MGMC & Solares Fondazione delle Arti

 

In a new exhibition at London’s Estorick Collection – a gallery of modern Italian art – the original paparazzi images are on display. ‘The Years of La Dolce Vita’ presents pictures of both Italian and Hollywood celebrities working on films and living a rather dolce vita themselves in Sixties Rome among other gilded Italian locations.

The collection mainly comprises intimate shots of actors by Marcello Geppetti – one of history’s first paparazzi. Director Federico Fellini’s film of 1960, La Dolce Vita, coined the word ‘paparazzo’ for the surname of its fictional news cameraman, the origin of which is a dialect word for the incessant buzzing of an insect.

From Ingrid Bergman warily pacing down a Rome street with her two daughters to Brigitte Bardot in polka dot trousers looking over her shoulder away from dozens of photographers, and Audrey Hepburn pensively leaning on a bakery counter to one of the most famous candid shots – Richard Burton kissing Elizabeth Taylor on a boat roof in Ischia (they were both married at the time) – almost every glamorous visitor to Sixties Italy is captured by Geppetti’s tenacious lens.

Displayed in a gallery, these photos – even the ones of enraged actors assaulting cameramen (there’s an intriguing one of Swedish actor Anita Ekberg in stockinged feet attacking photographers in her driveway with a bow and arrow in hand) – transform from fleeting flashes for tomorrow’s paper to works of art.

Culturally compelling and with a story to tell, Geppetti and his clicking contemporaries’ images are pieces of history – and their uniquely sensational yet naive tone, in black and white, make them appear more as iconic snapshots of a lost age than invasions into people’s personal space. And they were both. For every tasteless picture – one of the original ‘upskirt’ shots must have been Geppetti’s 1963 photo of French actor Michèle Mercier being lifted up having fainted – there are others evoking an extraordinary era of decadence and glamour.

Raquel Welch and Marcello Mastroianni at Cinecitta on the set of the movie “Shoot Loud, Louder, I do not understand ...”, 1966, taken by Marcello Geppetti (1933-1998). MGMC & Solares Fondazione delle Arti

 

Although a magnificent shot of actor and Mr Universe 1955 Mike Hargitay lifting his fellow actor and wife Jayne Mansfield into a cab after leaving a bar – the latter carrying her shoes and wearing an ornate floor-length evening dress – isn’t exactly translated in the images of Justin Bieber loping around in ill-fitting trackies we see today, the papping principle hasn’t changed since the practice began. As they did then, subjects now both court the cameras and deplore them. Paparazzi still aim for the most intimate shots they can find, valuing exclusivity and level of fame above all other factors. Shots of the celebrity in a couple, or with their children, remain the most lucrative.

But there’s a difference today, which could make exclusive paparazzi shots even more valuable in the future. First, with smartphones, everyone’s a photographer; the general public can often undermine a pap hard at work by being/lurking in the right place at the right time. Second, celebrities often do the paparazzi’s work for them (but for free) by publicising intimate shots of their personal lives on Instagram. But will the paparazzi who survive these modern threats eventually emerge as artists?

Here’s what Clément Chéroux, the curator of another exhibition, ‘Paparazzi! Photographers, stars and artists’, in France, had to say on the subject:

The paparazzi make history as well as witness it. There are certain events that have become important because they have been photographed... In the public consciousness, the paparazzo is seen as a loser, someone who is not very normal, who will sell his grandmother for money. He has no ethics, he's a bit dirty. He is the antihero, whereas the war photographer is the hero: a figure who risks his life to bring back images from the front. In reality, things are a lot more complex.