One myth of the documentary film or photograph is the idea of the unobtrusive camera: the photographer like an elegant spy flitting around taking snapshots of ne'er do wells by slyly pressing on their spectacle frames. In fact, the camera is more obtrusive than a large goitre protruding from one's neck. Perhaps even more so than a gun. When you point a camera at someone their behaviour immediately changes. I doubt even the Yamamoto tribe can now refrain from performing for the lens. This phenomenon distracts from the work of Sebastian Salgado, for example, in which the tar-covered Brazilian miners react to the camera with dispositions that stand in contradistinction to their settings. A Seydou Keita portrait on the other hand finds the sitters posing not for a photograph but rather as if they were expecting a Baroque painting to be produced.
Like the introduction of an alien species into a pristine ecosystem, the arrival of the camera has changed the balance between subject and artist/journalist/visionary. It was perhaps Weegee who first defiled the innocence of the lens in popular photography by making sure a Coney Island beach lathered with thousands of frolickers all stopped pretending to go about their normal activities by directing their attention to the box hovering above them. Appropriately it was Fellini who first created the ubiquitous term 'paparazzi' when he christened Marcello's Mastroianni's character in La Dolce Vita (1960), Signore Paparazzo. In 'Il Paprazzo/I Paparazzi', a quasi-historical overview of those armed soul-snatchers, we find photos mostly of celebrities, mixed in with the occasional photo-journalistic snapshot. The star system that popular film created whetted an insatiable appetite for images of our demi-gods slumming off screen. Ironically the woman who danced in the fountain of Fellini's opus became target number one for the Italian paparazzi. Anita Ekberg and Anthony Steel provided the type of walking, talking scandal the public loved. Not that their behaviour was particularly rude but the late 50s and early 60s revolved around the exotic, European sexpot. For the rest of the world, it was Sophia Loren, Marilyn Monroe or Bridget Bardot, but for the Italians, Ekberg's effervescence provided their introduction to the collective exploration of libido. The paparazzi was on top of what the masses hungered for: sexy, stylish and, most importantly, slippery. For what fun is the hunt if there is no chase?
The sneak attack also has appeal. The recent Brad Pitt photographs in Playgirl, are a perfect example. While the circulation of the skin mag has dropped precipitously due to the easy availability of their content via the Internet, the idea of exclusivity and the sort of peek-a-boo voyeurism of watching someone when they don't know they are being spied upon has timeless appeal. Witness Dino Pedrali's evil triptych of Pier Paolo Pasolini lounging nude in a country home. Pasolini's interrogations at the window suggested he knew of his pursuit but could not see the hunter. Eerie considering his death.
Invariably, as the history of paparazzi photographs continues, the frisson becomes milder, eventually dimming to today's state of banality, or, to paraphrase Nora Desmond, as the stars got bigger the pictures got smaller. The second half of the exhibition was in a larger space and devoted to current snapshots. It left one without the titillation of newness that photojournalism had in the 50s. Here we find settings that are now mostly indoors and created, more or less, as set designs simply for the purpose of media events. Parties, dinners, cat walks and dutifully crafted magazine spreads detract from the element of surprise. Now the paparazzi's safaris are fully equipped with the comforts of home. Bruce Weber, Pamela Hanson and Marina Schiano, to name a few, no longer exist in opposition to their subjects but merely function as free publicists for them.
This fascinating and well-curated exhibition had the dubious benefit of becoming, with the death of Princess Diana, a timely and important one. It was planned months before her death, and the ironies of timing cannot be understated. Her picture stands as the last in the show. Her back is turned, tellingly, as she stands next to Ralph Lauren. The debates and furies surrounding the paparazzi's involvement in her death seem faint even now. Moral judgements as to whether or not such things can be used humanely, or should be used at all, are suppressed by our incessant need for more.
Fitting coda: on the opening night of the exhibition two pictures were stolen.