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Fotomuseum Westlicht : Paparazzi!


In the film La Dolce Vita directed by Fellini in 1960, moviegoers remember the scene of Anita Ekberg’s arrival in Rome acting the part of an American star, attacked as she got off the plane by a pack of photographers. One of the characters in the film, Paparazzo, is a star chaser on Via Veneto. A term coined by Fellini himself, paparazzi are hybrid creatures: young professionals (ragazzi) of sensationalist photography and small mosquitoes (pappataci) feeding on lucrative blood, the daily and scandalous triviality of the stars.

The Westlicht Photography Museum in Vienna, with the exhibition PAPARAZZI!, traces the history, methods and aesthetics of “paparazzism” from the 1950s to the 2000s thanks to a collection bringing together around 120 photographs and documents. In the permanent collection of this museum founded in 2001 by Peter Coeln, the visitor can also contemplate the first commercial camera in the world – the Daguerreotype of the Susses brothers.

The paparazzi practice, often neglected in the canonical histories of photography, flourished in the 1950s between Rome, Hollywood and Cannes. The exhibition designed by curator Fabian Knierim places particular emphasis on the pioneering role of Italian photographer Tazio Secchiaroli and American photographer Ron Galella. The photographer Weege, who documented the sordidness of New York miscellaneous news stories from the 1930s, is also presented as a precursor of this genre at the crossroads of photojournalism and the investigative press.

Secchiaroli, known for having inspired the character of Marcello in La Dolce Vita, can be considered the inventor of the profession. His livelihood: creating scandal for the celebrity press. At the Rugantino club, during an evening reserved to Cinecittà stars, the actress and young Turkish dancer Aiché Nana begins a striptease. The reportage produced by Secchiaroli, entitled “La Turca Desnuda”, was published in the weekly Espresso in November 1958. The scandal put an end to the career of the young actress… In the following century, the alliance between the flash and the tabloid will compromise that of Britney Spears.

Ron Gallela, the most famous but also the most controversial paparazzi, became known in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. His photos of Marlon Brando, Grace Jones and especially Jacqueline Kennedy-Onassis have been exhibited in museums around the world. His obsession with the First Lady, whom he relentlessly stalks, has earned him two highly publicized legal battles. His photographic gesture is the opposite of the glamorous and composed studio portraits. The image theft technique results in a repertoire of original poses (faces hidden by hands or tensed by surprise) and a rendering (flash, hasty framing, motion blur) now characteristic of the aesthetics of the genre.

Paparazzi can be divided into two categories based on their attack technique. The first, lurking in the shadows or hidden behind bushes, shoot at long distances using their telephoto lens. The second, more reckless, confront their victim closely to make them react. In Rome in 1960, Marcello Gepetti immortalized the star Anita Ekberg equipped with a bow and ready to shoot an arrow at the two paparazzi facing her. In New York in 1996, Gallela captured Sean Penn’s punch to a photographer. This strategy of provocation is not an innocent game. It corresponds to a calculation making it possible to obtain merchandise images selling at a high price!

The codes and strategies of this photography have nevertheless been hijacked by contemporary artists. British artist Alison Jackson constructs fake paparazzi photos – like that of Diana giving the middle finger – to question the fascination with celebrities. She explains her project: “My photography deals with the voyeurism of the public, the seductive power of images and our desire to believe them. I work with lookalikes and actors who are made up to look real, then place them in scenes that we have all imagined, but have never seen. »

The golden age of “papparazism” seems to be over today due to the decline of the celebrity press. The PAPARAZZI! exhibition reminds us, however, that the story of these hated photographers – embodying the image of the thief-voyeur-rapist – is decisive for understanding the mechanisms and evolution of the current media industry.

Martin Decouais


Paparazzi !
Until February 11, 2024
Fotomuseum Westlicht
Westbahnstraße 40
1070 Vienna

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