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

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 deputy web editor at the New Statesman.

Show Hide image

Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide