Ron Galella, the paparazzi photographer who pioneered the controversial art of candid celebrity imagery, died Saturday at his home in Montville, N.J. He was 91.
The New York Times said he died of congestive heart failure.
Galella was best-known for his years-long pursuit of former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, whom he photographed relentlessly throughout the ’70s. One of his photos of Onassis, with windswept hair outside her Manhattan apartment, is widely regarded as one of the most famous paparazzi images of all time. They went to court in 1972, with a judge declaring that Galella must stay 25 feet away from Onassis and 30 feet from her children. Although he violated the order numerous times, he eventually ceased his pursuit of the former First Lady in 1981, when a judge threatened to throw him in jail for 60 years if he did not comply with the order.
The photographer also made headlines in 1973, when a standoff with actor Marlon Brando led to the actor punching Galella, breaking his jaw and knocking out five of his teeth. Galella said he eventually received $40,000 from Brando in a legal settlement of the incident. Other celebrity feuds he was involved with included Richard Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Elvis Presley, Sean Penn and Brigitte Bardot.
Galella was born in New York City on Jan. 10, 1931 to a piano and coffin manufacturer father and a mother who worked as a crochet beader. Galella studied acting and stage direction in California and worked as a photographer in the air force during the Korean War. He took photos of stars arriving at premieres in his free time, and began selling his works to publications including the National Enquirer and Photoplay, becoming well-known for his photographic style.
The 2010 documentary “Smash His Camera,” from director Leon Gast, captured Galella’s life and career. The film won best documentary at the Sundance Film Festival.
Galella published 22 books, with some solely dedicated to iconic figures such as Onassis, Donald Trump, Andy Warhol and Michael Jackson. When Galella first began photographing celebrities in the 1960s, his work was derided as inappropriate and distasteful, although he had no trouble selling his images for print.
It wasn’t until much later that he received a more high-profile acknowledgement of his photography, with his works being inducted into museums including the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and included in the biographies of stars who at one point disagreed with his methodology.
The style of Galella’s photographs became a blueprint for current publications such as People, Us and TMZ, all of which feed paparazzi culture.
“My idea of a good picture is one that’s in focus and of a famous person doing something unfamous,” Warhol said of Galella. “It’s being in the right place at the wrong time. That’s why my favorite photographer is Ron Galella.”
Galella is survived by his brother Vincent and his nieces and nephews.