Most paparazzi are fly-by-night operators looking for a quick buck, but veteran pap Ron Galella has spent the last 50 years amassing an archive of candid celebrity photos as impressive as any major media outlet’s. If a publication is looking for an unfamiliar picture of, say, Robert Redford in the ’70s, they contact Galella, who has millions of original images in his basement. (He has three boxes of Tony Danza alone.) Leon Gast’s documentary Smash His Camera surveys the photographer’s career, from his groundbreaking court fights with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis to his hot pursuit of Liz Taylor and Dick Burton in Rome and his jaw-busting altercation with Marlon Brando in the ’70s. The movie also deals with the legal, ethical, and aesthetic issues of Galella’s business, asking whether he has a right to take pictures of anyone at any time, and whether his work has intrinsic value beyond its subject matter.
Gast is a skilled documentarian who won an Academy Award for When We Were Kings, and aside from some overly jaunty soundtrack music, Smash His Camera assembles Galella’s anecdotes smartly, and supports them well visually. Gast follows Galella around as he attends events now, still trying to sneak in back entrances and get shots that all the photogs on the press line won’t. Then it looks back at Galella’s heyday, when he’d leap out of the bushes to catch Jackie O in an unguarded moment, or pay informants so he’d know where celebrities would be dining. Galella and his fans paint these youthful hijinks as good, clean fun in the pursuit of art, but Gast also gives plenty of screen time to people who consider Galella’s tactics disgraceful at best, criminal at worst.
Smash His Camera certainly allows for the possibility that Galella is little more than a wacko who’s turned his worst traits into a lucrative career. It’s hard to deny the power of his images, which capture some of the most famous faces of our times, unposed. But would they be as powerful if Galella were photographing his landlady instead of John Travolta? Toward the end, Gast shows a young woman walking through a gallery of Galella’s work, unable to identify his subjects. So what happens when people forget about all those people he stalked and snapped? Will his collection still be seen as an invaluable store of late 20th-century art, or the work of a celeb-obsessed hoarder?