The paparazzi join the New York art world

Adrian Dannatt visits a timely exhibition that traces the history of celebrity snapping
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The Independent Online
"Felliniesque" as in the grotesque, absurd and bizarre, might be picked at random as an adjective for the scene this week at Manhattan's prestigious Robert Miller gallery, whose latest exhibition vanished altogether on its opening night beneath a pan-global avalanche of photographers, TV cameras and journalists simultaneously reporting on each other. Synchronicity ordained that this show, planned eight months in advance as part of the gallery programme, would suddenly be turned into a bulimic media feeding frenzy: for its title is "Il Paparazzo", and the black-and-white images on the walls trace this distinct photographic genre from the mid-Fifties until today.

Fellini (not just his "esque") is much to the fore. Not only is the director pictured several times, but the exhibition is a homage to the term he invented for La Dolce Vita, for which he created the name "Paparazzo" after a school friend - an entirely fictional origin for a breed fixated on raw reality.

The Robert Miller gallery is renowned for its photography department, which specialises in such modern masters as Diane Arbus, William Eggleston and the abstractions of Jan Groover. These are overtly high art practitioners, far removed from the sordid financial engines that drive the paparazzi. To curate a show around the micro-history of the celebrity snapper would be an interesting choice for such a gallery in any circumstances, as within the polished, white, gallery cube any image gains associative pedigree. But, as this show demonstrates, there is no such thing as "photography" per se, merely different uses and abuses of photographs.

If the idea was to explore the hidden aesthetics of such photography by presenting it in a different cultural arena, which the show ably and fascinatingly does, the surging melee of reporters at the opening were more concerned for a titillatory pan of glamorous guests or shocking close- ups, replicating unthinkingly the issues of the show. At one point, the smallest room contained no fewer than six rival TV crews, tripods scattered like alien visitors, glaring lights creating a miniature St Tropez, while a German presenter launched into his monologue, waggishly whipping out his own Instamatic to flash into his TV camera, part of the vertiginous self-contained media storm that included photographers photographing photographers in front of their photographs of photographers photographing photographers and so on into post-modern meltdown. Olivier Renaud-Clement, the gallery's photography director, attempted to explain his intention to a ceaseless chain of interviewers from Taiwan to Denmark, all determined to reduce it to a moral faux pas.

The show certainly does not whitewash the paparazzi by turning their work into isolated visual vignettes of compositional merit; instead, and rather surprisingly, the first historical section, "Il Paparazzo 1954- 1964", is extremely condemnatory. While "stolen shots" of the notorious, earliest practitioners including Tazio Secchiaroli (on whom Fellini based the original "Paparazzo" figure), Marcello Radogna and Mario de Biasi could easily have been turned into nostalgic souvenirs from an era of innocence, it is made brutally clear that the game was just as violent, intrusive and unwelcome then as now. The room full of framed black-and- white photographs may look sophisticated, but closer inspection shows Brigitte Bardot's boyfriend chasing a photographer on the Via Veneto; Walter Chiari trying to punch Tazio himself, then fighting another photographer; Anita Ekberg fighting them off with bow and arrows; and a particularly shocking image entitled "Jayne Mansfield lying on the ground after having been assaulted by a woman jealous of her beauty, Rome 1960".

Recurrent paparazzi themes are made clear, not least the strange symbiotic link between celebrities and cars. There are endless shots of automobile interiors, open doors and tinted windows, as if the car were a physical extension of fame into a sculptural dimension. Planes are also much featured - the other of the two, most lethal 20th century forms of transportation, whose intimate nexus with the thanatology of celebrity J G Ballard was the first to research.

These vintage gelatin silver prints, available to collectors for a few thousand dollars each, may not claim to be art, but they open up issues otherwise taken for granted. From what is considered the first true paparazzi shot, of King Farouk in 1958, until today, this photography can be daringly abstract, yet happily accepted by a socio-economic clientele vocally opposed to abstraction in any other medium. An entirely incomprehensible jumble of dots only needs a caption to become immediately commercial in a way the pointillist painters could never have grasped. The paparazzi take photographs in which nothing matters apart from capturing the murkiest semblance of an event, which can then be constructed or imagined with text prompting.

The second half of the show, "Il Paparazzi 1964-1997", shows how basic rules of the genre have remained, albeit heated to boiling point by money and the all-out power of "Celebrity Culture". This section also demonstrates how cliches of the paparazzi shot have influenced fashion photographers in everything from parodistic advertising campaigns to everyday catwalk practice. Throughout the show it is obvious how much these photographers limit themselves to already determined media targets, for in the majority of shots other photographers' circular flashbulbs are visible like the halos of Quattrocento saints, an unbreakable publicity loop no different today.

It could be argued that without such work the only images of our celebrities would be studio portraits staged by themselves, or that we now have an archive of historically important, spontaneous verities; but what is finally impressive about this exhibition, regardless of its own timing, is that it shows the real history of the paparazzi without obvious moralising or any attempt to elevate their work to artistic status. The final framed shot is a 10 by 8in print of an elegant young woman in a strapless dress being led into a dinner in Washington DC last year. We only see her naked back, her hair; but unlike those Sixties starlets of the Piazza di Spagna, this woman is so instantly, almost subconsciously recognisable that she requires no caption or explanation. Whether as a mark of respect or symbol of the end of unbridled paparazzi power, this photograph is the perfect note to end on. Of all the images in the exhibition it is marked NFS, Not For Sale.

The show runs until 4 October at Robert Miller, 41 East 57th St, New York City.