In person, Ron Galella’s nostalgia for the moments he’s captured is palpable—contagious even. His catalogue feels like a walk through a pop culture museum of moments: Muhammad Ali sparing with John Travolta, Andy Warhol eating a hotdog, Madonna driving a car, and Marlon Brando scowling from behind a door. There’s Sylvester Stallone grabbing his newspaper, Al Pacino walking down the street, even Grace Jones in her famous New Year’s Eve dress painted by Keith Haring. With every shot, he manages to capture his subjects in their element.
“I always want to get them when they don’t see me, because if they see you, they try to pose,” Galella said. “I like to get them being normal. You get to see that they’re just like us.”
A Bronx, New York-native, Galella got his start as a United States Air Force photographer. In 1951, he was working as a ceramic artist when he was drafted for the Korean War. Rather than enlist in the Army, he chose the Air Force, which allowed him the opportunity to learn photography. After being discharged, Galella studied photojournalism at the Art Center College of Design in LA. In 1958, he moved back to New York. Unable to find an affordable studio in Manhattan, he built a dark room in his father’s basement.
“The world became my studio, always shooting on-location at hotels, airports, catching celebrities in their environments,” he said.
Galella became obsessed with the lives of celebrities, including that of former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. He photographed her outside her Manhattan apartment, with her children on vacation, eating dinner in New York’s Chinatown and, most famously, mid-stride, crossing the street, hair blowing in the wind. Galella’s infatuation with the former first lady would result in two lawsuits and a restraining order — but also in a book, Jackie: My Obsession.
That wasn’t his only run-in with the law. In 1973, Galella’s face met the end of Marlon Brando’s fist outside of a Manhattan restaurant, breaking his jaw and knocking out several teeth. This time, Galella was the one suing. It didn’t stop him from attempting to photograph Brando though; the next time, he simply wore a helmet.
Galella still works today, though the only event he shoots is the Metropolitan Museum of Art Costume Institute Benefit, otherwise known as the Met Gala, which he began covering in the early 1970s. His favorite spot at the event is situated next to the TV crews. From there, he can capture candid shots while celebrities give on-camera interviews.
“My favorite modern-day celebrity is Taylor Swift because of her natural, youthful beauty,” he said. “Fashion-wise, Taylor always wears classy, elegant garments that accentuate her long legs. She just knows how to present herself.”
Galella’s photo of her at this year’s event, “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology,” shows her mid-pose and clearly in thought.
“Most celebs at these events are posed for photographers, so I try shooting them when they are active and moving instead. When they’re moving, they’re not paying attention to the cameras and are acting as themselves. I observe, then shoot fast to capture the off-guard moment,” Galella said. “I also like to shoot them as they greet one another, as they’ve usually let their guard down to do so. Most photographers want the posed pictures, which are published, but I prefer the off-guard candids.”