It has been almost sixty years that the term "paparazzi" was coined. It was first introduced to the culture at large by the Italian director Federico Fellini and his film La Dolce Vita, in which Marcello Mastroianni plays a disenchanted tabloid reporter who lurks around the nightlife in Rome looking for his next story, followed by a photographer called Paparazzo. Ever since, paparazzi photography has been inspiring mixed feelings, influencing customs, fashions and sometimes even deciding the very fate of the one or ones featured in those images.
The current exhibition at Gallerie d’Italia, Palazzo Leoni Montanari at Intesa Sanpaolo’s museum in Vicenza, Italy explores the history of this pop-cultural phenomenon, tracking its evolution from Fellini to infamy. Titled Paparazzi! - Photographers and Stars from the Dolce Vita to the Present Day, the exhibition serves as a peculiar visual itinerary through the practice of so-called "stolen photography", through which it is possible to reconstruct historical moments and phenomena of custom, in an ongoing reflection on the roles and functions of photography.
Bringing together photos from the 1950s right up to its developments in contemporary imagery, the show features the rich and famous, “along with those who would have liked to become so,” as explained by curator Walter Guadagnini.
The paparazzi phenomenon exploded in Rome in the second half of the 1950s, when key figures from Italy such as Tazio Secchiaroli, Marcello Geppetti, Elio Sori, Lino Nanni, and Ezio Vitale began to work increasingly hard to catch unposed informal images of stars like Ava Gardner, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Sophia Loren. The exhibition opens with these images from the heyday of the Italian Paparazzi, reconstructing the visual and cultural climate in which these photos were first created and circulated, with particular attention to magazines, then the main information channel.
The exhibition places special focus on the Rome of Via Veneto and the Dolce Vita, featuring protagonists of that unforgettable season in Italy, from Anita Ekberg to Ava Gardner, from Michelangelo Antonioni to Federico Fellini, from Walter Chiari to Richard Burton and Liz Taylor, to name but some of the best known. In the cult Italian film La Dolce Vita, Fellini captured this phenomenon in remarkable accuracy, finding inspiration for Paparazzo in the photographer he knew well from the cafes in Via Veneto, Felice Quinto, who was known as the "king of paparazzi". Anita Ekberg, Fellini’s paparazzi-hounded star, became the real-life target of paparazzi camera in 1960. After being hassled by a lurking photographer throughout the night, the actress emerged from her home in the early morning hours with a bow and arrow and shot him in the hand.
The exhibition also captures the way the changes in society and media influenced the evolution of paparazzi photography. As the practice became more secretive in an attempt to capture increasingly scandalous pictures, the paparazzi was transformed into a gaze from afar, a much more voyeuristic one. By the end of the century, the industry turned into an international obsession for exclusive photos and videotapes of celebrities.
This is best illustrated in the pictures of Jackie Onassis, who fell prey to a series of photoshoots showing her unveiled, in private settings, thus causing widespread clamor, and of Lady Diana, who was followed by paparazzi in every moment of her life, from her engagement to Charles to her inspections of minefields in Ex-Yugoslavia, up to a few seconds prior to her death. Over time, paparazzi photography became marked as a predatory practice, for the aggressive intrusion that became necessary in order to achieve the best shot that would make the front pages. Francesco Zanto, the co-curator of the show, explained:
The radical change in communication that took place with the advent of digital technology altered once again the panorama of this ‘genre’; at the same time, the subjects on the stage of reality were modified, for it was no longer so much the actors who drew the attention of photographers, but also figures of power and politics.
Over the years, the industry had a major impact on the world of fine art, with artists from Gerhard Richter and William Klein to Andy Warhol all borrowing from paparazzi photography. The exhibition includes a number of works by contemporary photographers who have exploited the imagery of the Paparazzi to reflect on their practices, leading it to the edge between fiction and reality. Among highlights are the faux-paparazzi shots by the photographer Ellen von Unwerth, featuring the stars of our era, from David Bowie to Kate Moss and Monica Bellucci and turning them from victims into the protagonists.
Other highlights include works by Alison Jackson, who explores the cult of celebrity culture as created by the media and publicity industries through reconstructing apparently stolen shots with celebrity lookalikes and a wide-ranging project by Armin Linke, who worked on the archive of the modern paparazzo Corrado Calvo, which, according to Linke, also reflects on the themes of the archive and on the sense of a profession and of an attitude both so controversial and so fascinating.
The society simultaneously despises and loves paparazzi, as it taps into our darkest, most voyeuristic desires. Paparazzi are often described as morally dubious people who make lives of others miserable, but, in fact, they are part of a complex web of obsession for celebrity images which also includes the mass media market, consumers, and celebrities and their publicists.
Paparazzi! - Photographers and Stars from the Dolce Vita to the Present Day will be on view at Gallerie d'Italia - Palazzo Leoni Montanari at the Intesa Sanpaolo Museum in Vicenza, Italy until February 3rd, 2019.
Curated by Walter Guadagnini and Francesco Zanot, the exhibition is organized by Turin-based CAMERA - Centro Italiano per la Fotografia.
Featured images: The installation view of "Paparazzi! - Photographers and Stars from the Dolce Vita to the Present Day".