May/June 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 3
By definition, to be overrated, you have to be well known to a wide public. But how many photographers are? Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen? Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz? Herb Ritts and Helmut Newton? Margaret Bourke-White? Photographs are remembered, but not necessarily the names of the photographers who made them. My choice for most overrated photographer, Life magazine’s Alfred Eisenstaedt, is not only widely known but beloved. Indeed, I choose him not because his photos are without distinction but because the qualities in his work that made him beloved often render his pictures uninteresting.
The short, bespectacled Eisenstaedt, who died in 1995 at the age of ninety-six, came into the crowded cubbyhole of an office that was kept for him in the Time and Life Building in New York every day almost until the end of his life. Cheerful, with a reputation for being cheap, he was revered among later generations of photographers for being part of the picture staff (along with Bourke-White, Carl Mydans, Thomas McAvoy, and others) that made Life such a popular and powerful force during the 1940s and 1950s, before television changed everything. Still images have a way of weaving themselves into the fabric of collective memory, and Eisenstaedt’s pictures of marching bands, Marilyn Monroe, and, most famous of all, a sailor and nurse wrapped in V-J Day ecstasy became a part of a particular sunny American identity. But Eisenstaedt was never Life’s most original vision. His photos often border on (or cross over) into cliché. They can even seem self-satisfied—illustrations of Life’s , idea of life in America.
It’s ironic that Eisenstaedt’s best photo is not at all upbeat. In fact his 1933 picture of Joseph Goebbels (shot on assignment for the Associated Press) is downright chilling. Hitler’s propaganda minister looks up from a tightly gripped chair with an expression of utter menace. Eisenstaedt, a German Jew who would later have to flee his homeland, had asked Goebbels to smile so as to get a nice portrait, but he snapped early and instead caught something else, something that is not pleasant to see. From a mistake came a revealing portrait.
I have two choices, both of whom died last year: Tazio Secchiaroli and Marcello Geppetti. They were among the packs of photographers in Italy in the 1950s who found a startling new style of shooting celebrities that would change the nature of journalism and the public’s relationship with the rich and famous. Staking out the cafés along the Via Veneto in Rome, or chasing around on their Vespas, these photographers shot movie stars, businessmen, and royalty (especially royalty) in unguarded and even private moments. It was a far cry from the celebrity journalism practiced by respected magazines like Life , which courted movie stars and others. (Eisenstaedt once dressed as Veronica Lake to pose with Bob Hope for a Life layout on Hollywood.) What those Italian photographers did was not in the least respectful or respected. But their pictures, intimate and crudely real, sold lots of magazines, and they were relatively well paid for them. It could be argued that these photos helped break down the barriers between public and private lives; at the very least they became potent symbols of that breakdown.
It’s impossible to talk about the history of the paparazzi without talking about Secchiaroli. He was the inspiration for the celebrity-chasing photographer in Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita , a character named Paparazzo (Fellini said it was the name of a childhood friend who liked to imitate the sound of buzzing insects). Secchiaroli secured his fame one night in 1958 by shooting the deposed King Farouk of Egypt at a caf» with two women, neither of whom was his wife. When Farouk took a swing at the photographer, another photographer caught the moment. Shots of celebrities in fights, even fights provoked by photographers, were worth lots of money.
Over the years, paparazzi style changed. Close-up confrontation gave way to stakeouts and telephoto lenses. In 1962 Marcello Geppetti made surreptitious pictures of Elizabeth Taylor trysting on a boat with her Cleopatra costar, Richard Burton. At the time, Taylor and Burton were still married to other people, and the images shocked the world. In the aftermath the fate of the overbudget film and the future of 20th Century-Fox hung in the balance. Meanwhile, Liz and Dick had ascended to a level of jet-set celebrity that theretofore had been almost unknown.
As we now know, there would be many subsequent shocks provided by the paparazzi, shocks that the public usually can’t get enough of, because the flip side of celebrity adulation is celebrity envy. We love to see the high and mighty acting just like the rest of us mere mortals. Though they are generally held in low esteem for their invasive and ill-mannered tactics, especially since the death of the Princess of Wales, I think that deep in our hearts we know the world would be a lesser place without the paparazzi. Other journalists may pander to celebrities in order to sell magazines and bring high television ratings, but the paparazzi are unfettered. As hired-gun publicists exert more and more control over their rich clients’ public images, these photographers stand watch, day and night. Especially night.