Cutting To The Chase

ONE NIGHT IN OCTOBER 1960, paparazzi pursued the voluptuous Swedish actress Anita Ekberg to her Roman villa. Ekberg stormed outside in her black sheath and stocking feet, carrying a bow and arrow. She let fly, wounding a photographer. Nobody got a picture of that, but one paparazzo, Marcello Geppetti, did get a shot of Ekberg kneeing one of his colleagues in the groin. Now, even back in those days nobody would have mistaken the work of Geppetti for that of Henri Cartier-Bresson (nor would anybody have attributed Ekberg's box-office appeal to her acting ability). But since 1958, when several photographers were paid molti lire for candid pictures of deposed Egyptian King Farouk partying in a cafE in Rome with two young women, celebrity-chasers like Geppetti have thrived. They know that newspapers often pay more for invasive, unposed pictures than they do for canned glam shots. And stars such as Ekberg--who must have known her assault would provide yet another photo opportunity--began to realize that if their club- hopping personal lives were spilled onto newspaper pages, they might sell more movie tickets.

This perverse mating dance between what used to be called ""the beautiful people''--actors, models and trophy spouses who make their fortunes largely on their looks--and professional voyeurs who peep on behalf of all of us is the subject of a fascinating if sketchy exhibition at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York (through Oct. 4). Planned months before the Princess Diana tragedy, the show has two parts. The first, ""Il Paparazzo, 1954-64,'' is better. The intervening decades have lent a little melancholy to the scratched, folded, dust-spotted black-and-white prints (quite primitive by the standards of today's chip-driven cameras), snapped on the run. And umpteen turns of the fashion wheel have made bouffant hairdos and tight, shiny men's suits--not to mention once famous names like Michelle Mercier, Anthony Steel and Samy Frey--the stuff of archeology. Gazing at pictures of pre-rock celebrities cavorting on the Via Veneto is like listening to Johnnie Ray on vinyl. Only now the pictures are art: $4,000 for a set of three ""vintage gelatin silver prints'' (meaning old press photos) of Brigitte Bardot and husband Gunter Sachs von Opel sunning au naturel.

Part two, ""I Paparazzi, 1964-97,'' is far less interesting. It consists mostly of consensual, self-gratifying photographic acts (Sly Stallone in a tux staring vacantly into the lens, or Madonna and pals mugging for their own Polaroids). Even the gallery's photography curator, Oliv- ier Renaud-ClEment, admits, ""They're boring pictures.'' Boring is at least tasteful: there's only one photograph of Princess Diana in the show, taken from the back at a gala public event, and framed in mourning black.

The most striking features of the exhibition are its spooky ironies. In 1960 Ekberg was starring in Federico Fellini's sensational ""La Dolce Vita,'' a film about decadence among celebrities and complicit journalists--played, naturally, by a cast of decadent celebrities. (The movie also featured a photographer character named Paparazzo, who ultimately gave his name to the whole profession.) In the Ekberg photographs, the hunted celebrity turns into the goddess of the hunt, the archer Diana; the Princess of Wales's brother noted sadly in his eulogy that his sister Diana had become the hunted. Another picture, of Richard Burton dazzled by flash photographers while behind the wheel of a car, driving Liz Taylor, is a more frightening reminder of the crash.

Which is to say, the exhibition does make you think. What's the ethical difference, for instance, between high-minded photojournalism about the world's miseries and what the paparazzi do--that is, between heart-wrenching pictures of anonymous poor, sick or injured people too helpless to protest being photographed, and one of an indignant playboy balling his fists at the photographer? Whatever disgust arises from Diana's tragedy, the paparazzi will still be around. The creepiest aspect of the Miller gallery show is how the simple passage of time turns the products of their snooping into benign art objects. Sometimes (as with Ekberg) they're campy, and other times (as with the Burtons) they're scarily touching. But mostly they've become what the paparazzi themselves never were: innocent.