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

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.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

BBC
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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit