He was punched by Marlon Brando, sued by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and beaten up by Richard Burton’s bodyguards.
To some he’s a national treasure whose work has been deservedly exhibited in some of the world’s most prestigious art galleries.
To others he’s an “obscene pseudo-photojournalist responsible for helping create the ravenous monster known as modern day celebrity culture.
The colorful life and times of Ron Galella – the godfather of paparazzi style photography – are the subject of a mesmerizing documentary being screened at the Sundance Film Festival, “Smash His Camera.
The movie is the latest offering from Leon Gast, the US director famous for his Oscar-winning 1996 documentary “When We Were Kings, about Muhammad Ali’s 1974 heavyweight contest with George Foreman in Zaire.
Galella, a self-styled “paparazzi superstar, said he chose to pursue a career in photography because “it is the art of today.
“We are all born with talent, Galella told AFP. “Everybody. And it’s up to each individual to find what he is good at, early in his life.
“I chose photography because it is the art of today. I don’t think painting and sculpture are great any more. But the medium of today is photography.
Galella, 79, is delighted with the sympathetic portrait of him which emerges through Gast’s entertaining film. “I earned it. It shows my work, my achievement, my energy. I’m a workaholic, said Galella, a camera slung around his neck.
It is hard to dislike Galella after watching the film which reveals a man with a wicked sense of humor and over-sized ego, who fills the garden of his New Jersey home with artificial plants and rabbits who keep him company.
“I love myself, because I’m an artist. I’m an actor, sort of, to get in the picture too, said Galella, speaking under the watchful eye of his wife Betty, to whom he proposed only five minutes after their first meeting.
Director Gast admitted he was surprised by Galella’s “kindness, his generosity having only been aware of the photographer’s “horrible reputation when he first set out to make the film.
“He was this guy with his camera who was intruding in the life of Jacqueline Kennedy, our beloved first lady, Gast said.
“But after my research, I found out that Jackie wanted the pictures taken on her terms. She wanted to control her image. ‘You can take my picture when I allow you to take my picture.’ And that’s not how Ron operates.
“He’s an artist and he takes his picture when he wants to take it.
Galella’s relentless pursuit of the former first lady eventually led to court. He was ordered not to come within 25 feet of Onassis, an injunction the photographer accepted with humor, quickly adding a tape measure to his array of camera bag equipment.
In the same spirit, Galella took to wearing an American footballer’s helmet whenever he was seeking out Marlon Brando. The iconic actor left Galella nursing a broken jaw and missing several teeth after attacking him outside a New York restaurant in 1973.
As well as the work of Galella, Gast’s film evokes a time when celebrity photography was in its infancy, when the relationship with stars was franker and more direct. Galella laments the current state of affairs, where swarms of photographers hang around fashionable bars and clubs hoping for a shot.
“Today, it’s become a sad thing, Galella said. “There are too many photographers, too many people in the way, bodyguards in the way, fans.
“It’s against the conditions to take good pictures. When I shot all these celebrities, it was usually a one-on-one.
Nonplussed by his legions of critics, Galella insists on viewing himself as an artist, a position supported by Gast who cites the photographer’s images of Onassis as evidence. “If you look at pictures that Ron Galella took of Jackie, and the ones taken by everybody else, he’s superior, Gast said.
Galella expresses a particular fondness for a photo of Onassis taken in New York. Dressed casually in jeans and a sweater, she turns to face the camera and flashes an enigmatic smile.
“It’s my Gioconda. I think she didn’t know it was me. She wouldn’t have smiled like that (if she had), Galella laughed.