Snap! An infamous lensman gets his close-up

SMASH HIS CAMERS, directed by Leon Gast, Oscar-winning director of WHEN WE WERE KINGS

I suppose it’s a mark of where celebrity journalism and gossip are today that paparazzo Ron Galella is finally getting the star treatment.

For decades, Galella lurked in bushes and staked out buildings, hunkered down in taxis and emerged seemingly out of nowhere to get his shot of celebrities like Sinatra and Warhol, Sophia and Bianca, Michael Jackson, Elvis, and Sundance founder Robert Redford himself. Jackie O, whom he considered his “Mona Lisa,” took out a restraining order against him. Brando broke his jaw. Now, Leon Gast, the Oscar-winning director of WHEN WE WERE KINGS, has focused his own cameras on the infamous lensman in his new documentary, SMASH HIS CAMERA, currently showing at the Sundance Film Festival.

You’ll assuredly recognize many of Galella’s iconic photos. He brought us way up close to the people we craved to know, captured for us the elusive objects of our desire, and offered them up all glossy and beautiful. But no matter how much we ate it up, we still felt a little uneasy about his methods, a dichotomy Roger Ebert acknowledges in his blog post about the film.

“I had an idea, as many of us do, about Galella and the species of paparazzi. It was a hypocritical idea. I disapproved of him and enjoyed his work. Yes, he comes close to violating the rights of public people, and sometimes crosses the line. He certainly crossed the line with Jackie’s children… But he sold his photographs to publications which we bought, we looked at them with enjoyment and curiosity, and his career was made possible by our human nature.”

But Galella saw his photographs as art — composing his pictures with care, looking his subjects in the eye, finding glamour and expression in “the decisive moment,” developing his images slowly and deliberately in his darkroom. He saw his subjects as icons and heroes. “We all need heroes. Throughout history, the need for role models and someone to look up to is constant,” he recently told the Vancouver Sun. “We need to look at success stories and, today, it’s movie stars who achieve visible success. That’s why we want to know more about them. They are examples for the rest of us.” He recognized the symbiotic relationship between the celebrity and the people who help create and disperse their images: “We were all in it together … It’s a biosphere where everyone has their place. Without me taking their picture, they wouldn’t feel like the celebrities they are.”

Galella, now 79, doesn’t really shoot anymore. The carefully orchestrated red-carpet moments, interference-running PR handlers and camera-phone-toting amateurs have taken away the fun. But one wonders if something we never realized we had — an unwavering eye recording a moment in time, documenting our collective cultural obsessions — has been lost forever, traded in for the shaky camerawork of TMZ as it seeks to expose the ugly, rather than reveal the beauty.

Will we one day look back as fondly on Perez Hilton? Hard to imagine, even just for a flash.