Ron Galella, America’s most famous paparazzi photographer, likes to say he owes his career to the U.S. Air Force. After studying art in high school, Galella was working with ceramics after graduation when the Korean War broke out in June 1950. Rather than being drafted for combat, he decided to enlist for an arts-related position in the Air Force. Though he’d never studied it before, Galella discovered photography to be the closest discipline to fine art. After the war, he pursued the medium academically, studying photojournalism at the Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles, which introduced him to the world of Hollywood.
“That’s when I got hooked on celebrities,” says Galella, who would reinvent celebrity paparazzi culture over the next few decades through his relentless style and candid portraits. “Being in Hollywood, I figured I’d see what these stars look like.” The young lensman crashed premieres, introduced himself to celebrities and even took an acting class to overcome his shyness about rubbing elbows with Hollywood’s A-List.
Though he’d photograph countless stars throughout his career, including Madonna, Michael Jackson and Marlon Brando, Galella’s favorite subject would become First Lady Jackie Kennedy. “She was my muse, my golden girl,” Galella says. “She was my ideal subject for many reasons—she did not pose, she was active, and for the most part, she would ignore my camera.” Even later restraining orders issued against Galella would not deter his obsession with the notoriously private Kennedy.
Galella has largely stepped out of the spotlight over the last 20 years, since he and his wife moved to New Jersey in 1992. But he continues to cover prominent culture events from the annual Tony Awards to this year’s Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala (for the record, he thought singer Beyoncé was best-dressed). “The paparazzi culture has changed drastically,” he says. “When I did it, you had the great freedom to shoot—no fans, no security, no publicists. And I don’t miss it too much because I have the gold in my files.”