Although the term paparazzi was first coined in Italy, it has reached its zenith — or its nadir — on this side of the Atlantic, aided by the internet, the money to be made and the ease of picture-taking technology and dissemination. It's debatable which came first, the insatiable desire to document the famous or the need for the masses to see endless images of celebrities caught acting like normal people. Added to the mix is another layer, as celebrities themselves post their whereabouts and thoughts on their Twitter accounts, courting the popularity that we always knew they craved despite their protests.
Some of these issues of celebrity were addressed at the Getty Wednesday night at "Are We All Paparazzi Now?," a discussion in conjunction with an exhibit called "Portraits of Renown," celebrity portraits dating back to the 1800s and including Abraham Lincoln, Mark Twain, Georgia O'Keefe, Edgar Allan Poe, Josephine Baker, Andy Warhol and Anderson Cooper as an infant, photographed by Diane Arbus. The show hangs, not accidentally, adjacent to an expansive show of the work of Herb Ritts, whose sun-drenched and beautifully composed images of people like Madonna and Richard Gere had almost as much to do with their ascension in the public eye as did their talent.
Since directing "Teenage Paparazzo," a thought-provoking 2010 documentary about a 13-year-old Los Angeles boy who threw himself into the pursuit of the celebrity image, Adrian Grenier has taken on the role of educator. The star of "Entourage," usually the object of the camera's lens himself, screens his film and speaks to teens and adults about the perils and paradoxes of celebrity in American culture. He often uses the term "hall of mirrors" to describe the state of society today. It seems apt, as I often wonder if people have forsaken actually living their lives for the shared experience of documenting their lives, pausing to photograph the meal that's just arrived at their table, the painting they are looking at in the museum or the shoes they are trying on. Now that we know celebrities are just like us, proven by the endless flow of images of them shopping, pushing strollers, sipping lattes in their sweats or heading to or from the airport, we've come to the point where we've deemed our own lives just as worthy of exposure.
The discussion, taking place at a major museum, begs the question: the portraits that grace the walls of the Getty seem several cuts above the images that we are bombarded with daily. Yes, the paparazzi quench the desire for our society's need to know everything about those we have put on the public pedestal. But is there anything about these images that can be called art? Squiers noted the difference between making pictures and taking pictures. "Great photographers make pictures," she said.
Today's paparazzi certainly give us images that provide a glimpse into our society and what it values at this moment in time. One quizzical audience member referred to them as "bullshit." Galo Ramirez, the lone paparazzo on the panel, responded, "If it's bullshit they want, it's bullshit I will give them." At the same time, he acknowledged the lucrative market for his work, refusing to put an amount on what an image could bring him but saying that whatever he is paid makes it well worth his while to wait at someone's home for hours. He is hoping to snag the hottest shot on the market in the next "news" cycle: Angelina Jolie in her wedding gown.
The panelists at the event, which was co-sponsored by Zocalo Public Square, included Grenier, Carol Squiers of the International Center for Photography, Carolyn Davis (a photo editor at Us Weekly) and Ramirez, who famously crashed his car into one driven by Lindsay Lohan as they both made U-turns several months ago. He recently got pictures of the coroner's van taking Whitney Houston's body from the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. Carla Hall, an editorial writer at the Los Angeles Times, moderated the panel.
Grenier has taken the issue of celebrity and run with it, having the self-awareness and smarts to see its many layers. He acknowledges that pictures tell a story and there is nothing inherently wrong with storytelling. "But we have to leave the celebrity experience and have human experiences with each other," he said. "I don't want to tell anyone how to live. I just want people to see as many perpectives as possible."
Both photos: Iris Schneider