In 1968 the British artist Richard Hamilton, one of the fathers of Pop art , began Swingeing London 67, a famous series of works. In this sequence of paintings and prints, several of which feature in a new retrospective at Tate Modern in London, Hamilton presented variations on a notorious newspaper photograph in which The Rolling Stones front man Mick Jagger can be seen in the back of a prison van travellingto Chichester Magistrates Court, where he faced charges of illegal drug possession. Wearing a striped green tie and a turquoise suit, Jagger, who is handcuffed to the flamboyant art dealer Robert Fraser, raises his manacled right hand to shield his eyes from the glare of the photographer’s flash.
According to the American art historian Hal Foster, Jagger’s gesture – the archetypal defensive pose of an embarrassed celebrity caught unawares by the paparazzi – recalls The Expulsion from Paradise, a famous fresco by the 15th-Century Florentine painter Masaccio in which Adam clutches his face with both hands in shame and despair. In other words, the paradise of the Swinging ‘60s was over. By the end of the decade, the ‘60s had become a time of reckoning rather than partying; of severe, “swingeing” penalties, not drug-taking. Whether or not Hamilton intended this allusion to Masaccio, Swingeing London 67 is a brilliant example of a modern artist discovering inspiration in a photograph taken by a paparazzo.
This is perhaps surprising, because it is hard to think of a maker of images more maligned than the paparazzo, a freelance photographer who pursues celebrities to grab unofficial and often unflattering pictures that can then be flogged to tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines. Ever since the death of Diana, Princess of Wales in a car crash in Paris in 1997, when a chasing pack of photographers was popularly blamed for forcing her chauffeur into a fatal error of judgement, paparazzi photographers have been routinely abused – unlike other photojournalists like war photographers, who are often praised. Paparazzi pictures are viewed and enjoyed by millions around the world, but the people who take them are considered morally dubious, if ingenious.
Yet a new exhibition, Paparazzi! Photographers, Stars and Artists at the Centre Pompidou Metz in France, suggests that visual artists often take a different view. For artists like Hamilton, the aesthetic of paparazzi photography isn’t beyond the pale. Rather, it can be exciting and fertile when it comes to making art.
Flashes of inspiration
The term ‘paparazzo’ is often attributed to the Italian film director Federico Fellini, who combined the words ‘pappataci’ (sandflies) and ‘ragazzi’ (ruffians) in the name of a character who worked as a news photographer in his 1960 film La Dolce Vita. The character, Paparazzo, was based on the Italian photographer Tazio Secchiaroli, who became one of the first paparazzi when he shot the star of La Dolce Vita, Anita Ekberg, enjoying a night out in Rome with her husband a couple of years before the film was released. As the curator Carol Squiers has written, when Secchiaroli took his fateful photographs of Ekberg in 1958, “he couldn’t have foreseen the phenomenon he was helping to create – a multibillion-dollar industry that became known as paparazzi photography”.
Nor could he have foreseen the impact that industry would have on the world of fine art. Artists from Gerhard Richter and William Klein to Andy Warhol have all borrowed from paparazzi photography. During the Sixties, for instance, Richter made a blurry grey lithograph portrait of Queen Elizabeth II that was obviously based on a picture in a newspaper or magazine. Klein took fashion photographs for Vogue with an artfully snatched feel: in one, a model emerges from a yellow taxi cab in New York like a film star at a premiere stepping out of a limousine. Warhol, meanwhile, was famously obsessed with celebrity. He immortalised throwaway mass-media imagery in many of his silkscreen prints.
“The use of flash at night, or [shooting] a person coming out of a car, or the use of a telephoto lens to create the illusion of a transgressive world have all influenced artists,” explains the French photographer Michel Giniès, who specialised in shooting spontaneous and unguarded pictures of celebrities between the Seventies and the Nineties. He could be describing the appearance of one his photographs included in the Centre Pompidou Metz exhibition: a shot of the film star Robert Redford and the filmmaker Costa-Gavras ambushed by aggressive photographers leaving a Parisian restaurant in 1976.
I wonder, though, whether Giniès resents artists recycling the aesthetic of paparazzi photography. Does he feel that the skill of paparazzi photographers has not received sufficient credit? “I don’t consider myself an artist,” he tells me, “but some of my photos have characteristics that could be described as ‘artistic’. Like Jackie Kennedy alone in a Paris street by night, lit only by my flash, or the photo of John Travolta in the exhibition at the Pompidou, taken by flash at the rear of a car, with rain on the windows and him [looking] lousy after an evening in a nightclub. The photo is enlarged so that it has grain and the rain creates a surreal result. There is a lot of hypocrisy from people who blame paparazzi but enjoy seeing their photos.”
The truth about paparazzi photography is that we despise it and love it at the same time. Perhaps this also explains why so many modern artists have been drawn to it. As well as transmitting the illusion of authenticity and the whiff of transgression, paparazzi photography taps into our darkest, most voyeuristic desires –terrain often explored by great art.