Love him or hate him, Ron Galella is known as the photographer who pioneered paparazzi photography. Documentary filmmaker Leon Gast turns the camera on Galella and makes him the focus with his 2010 documentary Smash His Camera. It doesn’t seem like Galella minds the attention too much. In fact, he really seems to yearn for the attention. But it’s Gast’s balanced, informed documentary that presents both sides of Galella in the fascinating film.
Galella has gone to extreme lengths to get photographs of his favorite celebrities. He’s staked out a warehouse overlooking a yacht to get photos of an unknowing Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, he’s hidden in bushes to photograph Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and her children and, apparently, car chases to beat his targets to their destinations are common occurrences.
It hasn’t been as easy as simply taking photographs. Marlon Brandon punched Galella, breaking his jaw and taking out several teeth, after he and Dick Cavett were chased through NYC. But it’s Onassis that Galella is admittedly obsessed with. The unending boxes of negatives of his photos of the former first lady are piled up in Galella’s archive. It was his repeated harassment of her — it doesn’t seem far-fetched to use the term “harassment” when a photograph is taken, as an example is given, in her child’s school as opposed to merely on the street — that drove the two into lawsuits. The courts assigned Galella with multiple restraining orders demanding he stay specific distances from Onassis and her children. Amazingly, it didn’t deter him.
While it can be easy to see the negative of some of Galella’s actions, Gast shows a well-balanced portrait. He brings in a table of photographers who discuss the quality of Galella’s photos. He brings in the lawyers involved in a number of the cases. He brings in Dick Cavett to recall the infamous incident. And he shows Galella’s private life, his wife and the home his photography has afforded them.
Regardless of your opinion of Galella, and you’ll likely develop one after watching Smash His Camera if you didn’t have one already, the film provides an fascinating look into celebrity and photography back before every idiot had a cellphone with a camera. Those were the days.