Paparazzi. The lowest of the low. Leeches, predators, sleazebags. Intrusive, money-grubbing, shameless stalkers. No depths to which they won’t sink in pursuit of stunners, love rats and sex romps.
Yup, paparazzi get a pretty bad press. So where does this ravenous pack of hyenas come from? And why are they called paparazzi? It’s a story with plenty of tabloid appeal, set in 1950s Rome where a cluster of volatile elements fuse to create the gruesome phenomenon.
The paparazzi – humble beginnings
Like Paris after World War II, Rome and its inhabitants are in dire straits after the defeat of the fascists. There’s no better account of the poverty and desperation that are rife in the city than Vittorio de Sica’s seminal neorealist film, The Bicycle Thieves (1948). It recounts the travails of Antonio Ricci, an impoverished father who finally is lucky enough to be offered a job that could be the salvation of his young family. But to do the job he needs a bicycle, and he’s already pawned his to raise cash for food…
Ricci is typical of thousands of Romans who have to live on their wits.
In the aftermath of World War II, one option is to beg, steal or borrow a camera and offer to take pictures of visitors to the eternal city – mostly soldiers and a few tourists. Of course, there’s no such thing as instant prints, so the idea is that the customer meets the photographer later on to collect and pay for the shots. But, as often as not, the customers fail to show so the photographers (or “scattini” as they are known) find themselves shelling out money they can’t recoup on film and print, and living on the breadline. The last straw is that as cameras get cheaper and easier to afford, more and more visitors have their own equipment. Whatever market there was, begins to dry up.
The paparazzi – the movie industry to the rescue
By this time, another way of earning much-needed lire is gathering pace. In 1945, Cinecittà, the film studio set up on the outskirts of Rome by Benito Mussolini, is little more than a refugee camp. But it doesn’t take long for the Hollywood studios to begin to realise its potential.
As the largest film-production facility in Europe, it can offer the capacity to shoot spectacular movies such as Quo Vadis, Ben Hur, and Cleopatra, with the populace of Rome only too happy to provide a rent-a-crowd service. Besides movie extras, there’s plenty of untapped talent across the disciplines, from sets to lighting, and from costumes to hair and make-up. All available at bargain prices compared with the escalating costs of production in Hollywood.
But the real deal-clincher is a piece of Italian legislation that prevents US companies from sending back their earnings. What better to do with the funds generated by tickets sales of US movies in Italy than plough the money back into making more films there? By the time an article about the film-making in Rome appears in the June 26 1950 issue of Time magazine, the author is able to coin the phrase “Hollywood on the Tiber” – and it sticks.
The Hollywood studios don’t just provide employment opportunities, they also bring along a host of stars who might otherwise never have materialized in Rome – the likes of Humphrey Bogart, Stewart Granger, Robert Taylor, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Ava Gardner, Deborah Kerr, Audrey Hepburn, Linda Christian, Anita Ekberg and Elizabeth Taylor.
According to an article in the August 16, 1954 issue of Time magazine:
Movie producers … were just as common as cats in the Forum, and just about as noisy. … As many as three pictures were being shot at once with the same cast. … Drinking orgies, studio spies and gorgeous villas with swimming pools were the rule of the day. The purple sports shirt had replaced the purple toga.
The paparazzi – photographic scandalmongers
All this talent congregates around via Veneto, until recently the haunt of Rome’s bohemian intellectuals and artists but rapidly transforming into the centre of nightlife for the elite of Roman society – the rich, the famous, the titled, the entitled, the notorious, the wannabes…
In 1957, Melton Davis in his book All Rome Trembled, writes of via Veneto:
Only in modern Italy could a single half-mile-long street contain so much grace and vulgarity, power and decadence, charm and arrogance as did this gilded alley. It was made to order for the fixers, for the dope-addled princes and dream-haunted paupers, for the whole fantastic parade that gathered there.
And the goings-on of this group generate two scandals that rock Italian society to its foundations – partly because of what they reveal about a depraved upper-class demimonde but also because of the way they are reported – in photos as well as in copy.
During the fifties, Italy’s magazine sector is booming. Alongside the traditional publications, there are more recent titles, which take their inspiration from US picture magazines LIFE and Look. And then there are the new gossip magazines. The market leaders are Le Ore and Lo Specchio. each selling upward of half a million copies a week. Newsworthy images are their meat and drink, their appetite for them is insatiable, and very few of them have staff photographers.
Which brings us right back to the scattini who have realized that there is no more mileage in tourist shots. The name of the game now is to come up with juicy pictures of newsworthy events and celebrities – the more titillating the better. The scattini have morphed into downmarket street photographers.
The paparazzi – the Wilma Montesi scandal
The first of the two scandals begins when the corpse of an unremarkable young woman is found on a beach near Rome. She’s wearing a coat, blouse and underwear but her skirt, garters, stockings, shoes and handbag are missing. The date is 11 April, 1953, and the girl’s name is Wilma Montesi. The coroner gives a verdict of accidental death, which the police are happy to accept. But is it mere coincidence that the strand where Wilma’s body was found is a just a kilometre away from Capocotta, a private wooded estate used by noblemen and their guests for hunting and parties? Rumour has it that Wilma was at an orgy of sex and drugs along with noblemen, politicians, gangsters and prostitutes. Perhaps she died of an overdose and was dumped on the shore. Or she may have been murdered because she knew too much.
It takes just a single newspaper to break cover and suggest there’s been a cover-up – that Wilma was murdered and, what’s more, some powerful politicians may be implicated. Within days, the press are all over the story. Named in conjunction with it are Ugo Montagna, a Sicilian nobleman and operator of Capocotta, and Piero Piccioni, well-known jazz musician and son of the Deputy Prime Minister.
In the ensuing libel case, Giuseppe Sotgiu, an ambitious Communist politician, leads the case for the defense. His plan is to make the most of this opportunity to get at the corrupt establishment and in the process to raise his own profile. The allegations and the trial itself are nothing short of sensational and draw the photographers like pigs to shit. In their determination to get the best shots, theyʼre not afraid to confront lawyers, witnesses, even the Montesi family, outside the courthouse, at their homes and offices, and when they are out shopping or relaxing at a bar or restaurant.
One of those witnesses is Anna-Maria Caglio, an attractive girl who has seen at first hand the goings-on at Capocotta and is prepared to talk about them under oath. She reveals that she has been so frightened that the alleged perpetrators would have her killed that as a precaution she left with her landlady a letter revealing her knowledge that Montagna runs a gang of drug traffickers and Piccioni is a murderer. The defining image – of Caglio, overcome with emotion – is snapped by Tazio Secchiaroli and goes everywhere.
For his next trick, Secchiaroli picks out a hiding place outside a brothel. Rumour has it that itʼs here that Sotgiu, who has assumed the moral high ground in the Montesi case, goes to watch his wife having sex with various lovers – women as well as men. Secchiaroli lies in wait and gets a shot of Sotgiu strolling into the building with an air of familiarity and later back out of it. Thanks partly to those shots, the police raid the brothel and arrest the couple for questioning together with a number of other participants. The screaming headlines that blaze across the newspapers end Sotgiu’s career.
And that’s not all. Back in court Montagna and Piccioni as part of their defense against charges in the Montesi case, claim to be strangers to each other. Tipped off by Velio Cioni, one of his gang, Secchiaroli manages to trap the pair by using his Fiat and himself to block the dead-end street down which they have driven. They make as if to run him over but he stands firm and gets half a dozen incriminating shots – another scoop.
In spite of all this, the trial comes to nothing – there’s simply not enough hard evidence to convict anyone for Wilma’s death.
The paparazzi – the strip show at Rugantino
Five years after the Montesi affair, the night of 5 November, 1958 to be precise, another scandal hits the headlines and once again Secchiaroli is in the right place at the right time. Along with four other photographers including Angelo Frontoni and Umberto Guidotti, heʼs been invited to a party thrown by Olga di Robilant, an aspiring actress looking to break into the scene in Rome with a view to furthering her career. She’s going to get a whole lot more than she bargained for.
The venue is Rugantino, a restaurant on a cobblestoned piazza in the city’s Trastevere district, and the guests include an assortment of young aristocrats together with various stars including Linda Christian, Elsa Martinelli and, most importantly, Anita Ekberg.
In spite of the hip crowd, the drinks and the strains of the Roman New Orleans Jazz Band, the party starts off as a pretty staid affair. Then Anita Ekberg kicks off her shoes and improvises a mambo. With her platinum tresses and décolleté black-velvet gown, she’s quite a sight. She’s joined by a German actor. Then a few more couples take to the floor. Other members of the party start clapping to the music. Suddenly, the atmosphere is electric.
Anita slips and decides to take a seat while she recovers. And onto the dance floor steps a small, dark girl in a white dress. She’s gatecrashed the party and no one knows who she is. But shy she isn’t. She walks up to the drummer and whispers in his ear. He signals to the rest of the band that he is going to do a solo performance. And the girl begins to dance. Anita asks if she’s a belly dancer. Yes, but the dress she’s wearing doesn’t lend itself to belly dancing. Anita challenges her to remove her dress, promising to follow suit if she does. And so begins the girlʼs notorious striptease.
There to record it for posterity and for the next day’s press are the five photographers. The one who gets the most celebrated shots is Secchiaroli. While his comrades home in on the dancer, he draws back to take in the leering crowd of celebrities. And he has the foresight to have his rolls of film smuggled out before they’re seized by the police. Secchiaroli will recall:
What was happening before my very eyes was indescribable … the most sinful, transgressive thing that I had every photographed.
The girl, it turns out, is Aïché Nana. She’s a Lebanese actress and writer and now everybody’s heard of her.
Secchiaroli’s photos appear in the reputable L’Europeo and L’Espresso as well as in more downmarket publications such as Epoca and Lo Specchio. The accompanying articles lead with headlines such as “Rome’s Turkish Night,” “The Sins of Trastevere” and “This Is How the Upper Crust Undress.” And the scandal even makes its way into The New York Times.
The paparazzi – what do they get up to and who are they?
For a while, there’s an unspoken pact, sometimes even collusion, between the photographers and their subjects. The former crave shots of celebrities to sell to the media. The latter are happy to appear in newspapers and magazines to build or bolster their careers or pander to their own egos. It’s a mutually beneficial relationship. But as competition intensifies between both magazines and photographers, the pressure ramps up for more and more sensational images.
It’s not long before the photographers, led by Secchiaroli, become provocateurs, goading their subjects to lose their cool and provide a bit of drama for the lensmen. Why? Because there’s a market for such images. The magazines will pay 3,000 lire (roughly US $40.00 in today’s money) for a straight shot and 200,000 lire (roughly US $2,750) for one of a celeb losing their cool – so the tantrum premium amounts to over 6,000%. The turning point comes around 1958 when stories about clashes between photographers and celebrities become more and more common and more and more racy. One particular night, Umberto Guidotti snaps a shot of exiled King Farouk of Egypt trying to snatch Secchiaroli’s camera from him; and Secchiaroli himself gets an image of British actor Anthony Steel in a drunken rage.
Anthony Steel, currently married to Anita Ekberg, is, in fact, a favourite target of the photographers. Late night, he can be relied on to have had too much to drink and be ready to flare up. Anita Ekberg usually takes it in her stride but occasionally she’s riled. On one memorable occasion, she returns to give her pursuers as good (if not better) than she gets, shooting at them with a bow and arrow. And it is pretty much outright war between the paparazzi and their targets. Here’s how Tazio Secchiaroli viewed it:
Now, there’s our target, our face: who’s going to let it get away? Obviously, on these occasions, nothing will stop us, even if it means overturning tables and waiters, or raising shrieks from an old lady who doesn’t quite get what’s happening; even if it means shocking John Q Citizen – he’s always there – who protests in the name of the rights of man, or, conversely, galvanizing the other citizen – also ubiquitous – who takes our side in the name of the freedom of the press and of the Constitution; even if the police intervene or we chase the subject all night long, we won’t let go, we’ll ﬁght with flashes, we’ll help each other out… The increasingly ruthless competition means we can’t afford to be delicate; our duties, our responsibilities as picture-hunters, always on the lookout, and pursued ourselves on every side, make it impossible for us to behave otherwise. Of course we, too, would like to stroll through an evening, have a cup of coffee in blissful peace, and see via Veneto as a splendid international promenade, rather than one big workplace, or even a theater of war.
The paparazzi themselves are a lean, hungry, streetwise bunch who have muscled their way into the business from humble beginnings. They don’t need to watch The Bicycle Thieves to find out just how much of a struggle life is for ordinary Italians. Often they hunt in packs, and they dress respectably so they can gain access to wherever the best shots are to be had. But they come from the other side of the tracks compared with their subjects, for whose wealth, lifestyle and privilege they have little sympathy. As Tazio recalls:
We photographers were all poor starving devils and they had it all – money, fame, posh hotels. The doormen and porters in the grand hotels gave us information tips – you could call it the fellowship of the proletariat.
So who’s in the gang during the 1950s, the heyday of the paparazzi? Some snappers you’re likely to bump into on the via Veneto, their favourite haunt, include Adriano Bartoloni, Giancarlo Bonora, Alessandro Canetrelli, Velio Cioni, Guglielmo Coluzzi, Licio D’Aloisio, Mario Fabbi, Quinto Felice, Marcello Geppetti, Umberto Guidotti, Ivan Kroscenko, Ivo Meldolesi, Luciano Mellace, Lino Nanni, Giuseppe Palmas, Paolo Pavia, Mario Pelosi, Gilberto Petrucci, Franco Pinna, Elio Sorci, Sergio Spinelli, Bruno Tartaglia, Sandro Vespasiani and Ezio Vitale.
But the two who stand out are Tazio Secchiaroli and Pierluigi Praturlon. You’ve read already about some of the former’s exploits. Pierluigi’s nickname in the business is “Lux,” after the soap advertised as “the choice of nine stars out of ten.” While he’s certainly one of the gang, he has other claims to fame – for example, his friendship with Anita Ekberg.
Anita and I often went out together. We used to go dancing at a place near Casalpalocco. One night in August, in I958, Anita, who always danced barefoot, hurt her foot. Coming back to Rome at four in the morning, we passed the Trevi Fountain and Anita said, ‘Stop the car so I can rinse my foot.’ ‘No, come on,’ I said. ‘You’ll be home in five minutes.’ She insisted, so we stopped. She got out and, hiking up her skirt, began wading into the fountain, at which point I got my camera and started shooting her in the fountain’s dusky glow. I remember two carabinieri standing in a corner who weren’t more than twenty years old. They didn’t say a word. They were completely entranced watching this beautiful woman in the fountain, with her long, lovely legs.
Anita Ekberg’s account differs in the details:
One night I was having photos taken by Pierluigi Praturlon. I was barefoot and I cut my foot. I went in search of a fountain to bathe my bleeding foot and, all unawares, found myself in the piazza di Trevi. It was summer. I was wearing a white-and-pink cotton dress with the upper part like a man’s shirt. I lifted the skirt up and immersed myself in the basin, saying to Luigi, ‘You can’t imagine how cool this water is, you should come in, too.’ ‘Just stay like that,’ he said, and started taking photos. They sold like hot cakes! … It was me who made Fellini famous, not the other way around.
Either way, the shots appear in a magazine called Tempo Illustrato. For a while, Pierluigi is Sophia Loren’s photographer of choice, before being superseded by Tazio Secchiaroli. He’s given the role of stills photographer for La Dolce Vita by Federico Fellini. And he goes on to set up a photographic agency, headquartered in Rome with offices in London and Paris.
The paparazzi – Fellini and La Dolce Vita
Federico Fellini’s masterpiece, La Dolce Vita, is inspired by the world you’ve been reading about – the celebrities, the scandals, the street photographers and the popular press in which their shots appear. He wants to capture the atmosphere of contemporary Rome:
I think the inspiration, even in terms of the formulation of the images, came from life as seen by the scandal sheets, L’Europeo, Oggi; the careless jaunts of the corrupt aristocracy, their way of photographing parties. The scandal sheets were the worrying mirror of a society that was in a constant state of self-celebration, self-depiction, self- congratulation.
Five scenes from the film which draw on events that have featured in the press are:
- The delivery of a statue of Jesus Christ by helicopter to the Vatican City, pictured in the papers in May 1950.
- The suicide of the poet and novelist Cesare Pavese following his split with Constance Dowling.
- The “miracle of the Madonna” photographed by Tazio Secchiaroli (he gets everywhere!).
- Anita Ekberg’s night out with Pierluigi and her midnight dip in the Trevi Fountain.
- The strip show at Rugantino.
- The exploits of the street photographers around via Veneto, which, according to Fellini’s co-scriptwriter, Ennio Flaiano, has “become one big party … this isn’t a street any more, it’s a beach … the conversations are like those at the seaside, referring to an exclusively gastro-sexual reality.”
With those expoits in mind, Fellini invites five street photographers including Pierluigi, Secchiaroli and Frontoni to dinner so that he can listen to their stories and pick their brains:
I spent a number of evenings chatting with Tazio Secchiaroli and the other photojournalists of via Veneto, learning the tricks of their trade. How they spotted their prey, how they teased them, how they how they tailored their features for the various newspapers. They had hilarious stories of lying in wait for eternities, of imaginative escapes, and of dramatic chases.
He retains Secchiaroli to train the actors who will play the parts of the street photographers in the film heʼs planning.
That those photographers come to be known as paparazzi is down to Fellini, his co-scriptwriter Ennio Flaiano and the film crew. Paparazzo is the name of the photographer with whom the journalist Marcello (the movie’s hack protagonist) teams up. It’s inspired by a travelogue that Flaiano has been reading and that features a hotel run by a man called Paparazzo.
When Flaiano proposes the name, the sound of it reminds Fellini of the buzzing of an insect you can’t get rid of. So Paparazzo it is. And during production, the film crew use the name for the whole gang of street photographers who feature in the movie – in Italian, paparazzi is the plural of paparazzo. The term sticks and rapidly gains currency.
The paparazzi – society’s pariahs
The paparazzi are none too pleased with their growing notoriety. In its April 14, 1961 issue, Time magazine publishes a pretty scathing article, Paparazzi on the Prowl, calling them “a ravenous wolf pack … who stalk big names … with flash guns at point-blank range” and with “lips leaking cigarettes, cameras drawn like automatics.”
No one is safe, not even royalty. … Legitimate news photographers scorn the paparazzi as streetwalkers of Roman journalism. But like streetwalkers, they cling to their place in society.
The new generation of paparazzi are more numerous than their predecessors and have new technology at their disposal – specificially zoom-lens SLR cameras. They no longer have to get up close and personal with their victims (and, increasingly, victims is what they are), they can shoot from way off. Gradually, the bleached out, high-contrast images produced by flashguns give way to grainy distance shots.
Perhaps the most famous early example of zoom-lens scandal shots is the work of a pack of paparazzi who, in 1962, set off in hot pursuit of Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor to Ischia, where filming of Cleopatra is scheduled for shooting after five months in Rome. The snappers catch the couple frolicking on the deck of a yacht. It’s the first proof of an affair that has been hotly rumoured. Both are married – in fact Elizabeth Taylor is already on her fourth husband. She has a reputation as a marriage breaker and for the press the series of photos confirm her insatiable appetite and shameless depravity. The scandal also helps ensure that Cleopatra will be an unprecedented box-office blockbuster.
And so a monster is born.
By the time he comes to shoot The Bible in Rome, John Huston tells the US press that the paparazzi have become so objectionable and impossible to avoid and objectionable that, unless something is done about them, movie-makers will find other options for their productions.
Even before then, the action has switched from Rome to London, where the story of the Profumo scandal has all the necessary ingredients: sex, politics, deceit, espionage, criminality, suicide, high society and an extra-marital affair. It blows the lid off the UK establishment just as the Montesi scandal did just over ten years earlier in Italy. And, like the Montesi scandal, it grips the country and its readers.
In the late sixties, media mogul Rupert Murdoch will enter the UK’s newspaper industry, buy The Sun (a failing broadsheet), turn it into a tabloid and, aided and abetted by editor Larry Lamb, focus it on sport, celebrities and gossip. The transformation is the subject of James Graham’s super, soaraway smash play, Ink. With its outrageous headlines, topless models and devil-may-care attitude, it will quickly become the UK’s most popular newspaper.
The Sun is just one example of the popularity of paparazzi photography and tabloid journalism. But as the quest for scandal gets more and more aggressive, unscrupulous and vicious, the issues raised will become increasingly urgent – not least, the extent to which the practices involved are tantamount to stalking by another name.
The whole thing will reach its grim, ignominious and inevitable conclusion in August 1997 with the tragic deaths of Diana, Princess of Wales and her fiancé, Dodi al-Fayed in a car crash in a Paris underpass. At her funeral, Charles Spencer will describe his sister as “the most hunted person of the modern age.” And at the inquest, jurors will rule that she was “unlawfully killed” not just by the reckless driving of the chauffeur but also by the paparazzi who were chasing her.
It’s difficult not to feel a certain admiration, affection even, for the first paparazzi. They were desperate, they were cunning, they were audacious. They did what they had to do to claw themselves out of poverty, they grafted and they had a ball. What those who followed in their steps had to offer is more up for debate. Hyenas and other scavengers, however repulsive, perform a useful task in nature. Can the same be said of today’s paparazzi?
The paparazzi – a uniquely Roman phenomenon?
The answer to the question depends on what we mean by paparazzi. In some respects at least they had a forerunner in the US. His name is Arthur Fellig but he’s better known as Weegee. He’s famous for his stark and gruesome photos of New York crime scenes, car crashes and other personal tragedies. His approach, as outlined in an interview on ASX, chimes with that of the paparazzi.
News photography teaches you to think fast, to be sure of yourself, self confidence. When you go out on a story, you don’t go back for another sitting. You gotta get it.
The idea was I sold the pictures to the newspapers. And naturally, I picked a story that meant something, in other words, names make news. If there’s a fight between a couple on 3rd avenue or 9th avenue in Hell’s Kitchen, nobody cares, it’s just a barroom brawl. But if society has a fight in a Cadillac on Park avenue and their names are in the Social Register, this makes news, and the papers are interested in that.
And Weegee’s account of photographing a murder scene totally echoes what set Secchiaroli apart from his mates that night at Rugantino:
I arrive, right in the heart of Little Italy, 10 Prince street, here’s a guy had been bumped off in the doorway of a little candy store. This was a nice balmy hot summer’s night, the detectives are all over, but all the five stories of the tenement, people are on the fire escape. They’re looking, they’re having a good time, some of the kids are even reading the funny papers and the comics.”
There was another photographer there, and he made what they call a ten foot shot. He made a shot of just a guy laying in the doorway, that was it. To me, this was drama, this was like a backdrop. I stepped back all the way about a hundred feet, I used flash powder, and I got this whole scene: the people on the fire escapes, the body, everything. Of course the title for it was “Balcony Seats at a Murder.” That picture won me a gold medal with a real genuine diamond…
Paparazzi photography is closely related to both photojournalism and street photography. The former tends to focus on more serious subject matter and to have a more serious slant. Street photography is generally gentler than paparazzi photography – think Henri Cartier-Bresson and the post-World War II humanist school, or take a look at some issues of Picture Post in the UK, LIFE and Look in the US.
The definitions of all these genres are always going to be fuzzy. Some defining characteristics of paparazzi photography are:
- Subject – celebrity, sensational or scurrilous subject matter (ideally, all three).
- Location – on the street or in other public places.
- Approach – candid shots, preferably catching the subject off-guard.
By that definition, paparazzi photography was by no means confined to Rome even back in the mid-fifties, as illustrated by the shots here of Grace Kelly (in Monaco) and Maria Callas (in Milan). Indeed photographers were looking for these kinds of shots even before World War II – just take a look at this image of Barbara Stanwyck at a Hollywood premiere back in April 1937.
So while Rome was certainly a cradle of paparazzi photography back in the 1950s, its reputation as THE birthplace of the genre probably owes as much to the legend created by Federico Fellini in La Dolce Vita as it does to what was actually taking place in the city.
Want to know more about the paparazzi?
Absolutely essential reading is Shawn Levy’s riveting book, Dolce Vita Confidential. You can find out more about two of the leading paparazzi in Diego Mormorio’s beautifully illustrated monograph, Tazio Secchiaroli, Greatest of the Paparazzi and Philippe Garner’s article for The Telegraph, Elio Sorci: the world’s first paparazzo. In TIME magazine Kate Samuelson has written about The Princess and the Paparazzi: How Diana’s Death Changed the British Media in TIME magazine.