Q: You’re considered the first American paparazzo. What was the first photo you took that you’d characterize as a paparazzi shot?
A: I would say my first pictures of Jackie [Onassis] in May 1967. She came to the Wildenstein gallery [in New York] and it was impossible to get good pictures, it was too crowded, so I followed her back to her apartment, which is how I got candids of her coming out of the limo. There was no interference, no bodyguards, no crowds.
Q: Why weren’t other photographers already following celebrities to try to get those kinds of shots?
A: Most of the photographers were staffers on the newspapers and magazines, and only went out on assignments, to events. As a freelancer, you can’t wait for assignments— you’ll starve. Paparazzi photography is not about events. It’s about creating another photo op: at their apartment after the event, perhaps, or no event at all, you just follow someone going to dinner.
Q: At first, were magazines reluctant to buy those kinds of pictures?
A: They craved those pictures. Newsweek, Time, Life, the National Enquirer, but also the fan magazines—there were 15 or 20 of them, like Photoplay and Modern Screen—were all competing for pictures.
Q: How early on was it possible to make a good living doing this?
A: I was doing good by 1967. I made half my living off Jackie. I was able to focus on her because I was not preoccupied with a girlfriend, and I was not married yet, so I was free to go out and it was an adventure to follow her. I was a marathon man, a workaholic. I’d develop the pictures at night, sometimes until three in the morning, then I’d get up, sell them right off the contact sheets, and start over again.
Q: How do you think your photos of stars measure up to those of, say, Richard Avedon or Annie Leibovitz?
A: Studio photographers like Avedon do their work by appointment, and they can get better lighting and better backgrounds, but they may not get the spontaneity I get.
Q: Whose pictures do you like better?
A: I like mine better. Not technically, theirs are better technically in terms of lighting and so on, but mine capture the fleeting expression you get when stars are themselves. You see, stars are usually acting. But I get them in their environment, when they’re not acting, they’re themselves. I don’t want them looking in my camera, I want them doing something, talking to each other, being themselves. That’s what I capture, their realistic expressions rather than poses.
Q: It looks like dangerous work, judging by the number of shots in your new book, No Pictures, of stars and bodyguards trying to slug you or other photographers. Were you ever scared?
A: Not really. When Brando hit me, it was a surprise, I never saw the punch, I was looking at Dick Cavett. To this day I don’t know why he did it. I followed Brando and Cavett to Chinatown [in New York], they were going out to dinner, and took about 10 shots. Brando then called me over and says, “What else do you want that you don’t already have?” I looked at Cavett, who knew me, and said, “Well, how about a shot without the sunglasses?” Before he could answer, Brando just slugged me, knocked five teeth out of my lower jaw. I stuck a handkerchief in my mouth and drove to Bellevue to get stitched up. The next day, a fan got a picture of Brando coming out of his hotel, his hand bandaged and swollen from infection from the bacteria from my teeth. He was in the hospital three days, recovering. I won an out-of-court settlement of $40,000, but a third of that went to the lawyers and then the rest I spent repairing my teeth, it took three tries to get it right, and I had nothing left over. A year later, when Brando had a press conference, I came prepared with a football helmet.
Q: Which star or celebrity did you most enjoy photographing?
A: Number one was Jackie, only because she didn’t pose, you see. If somebody stops and poses, you have to take the picture, say thank you and leave. If they don’t stop and pose, you don’t feel no guilt then. You can go on and on and on [shooting].
Q: Any celebrities you actually came to dislike?
A: Sean Penn, he’s a bad boy. And Richard Burton, he was the worst, worse even than Brando.
Q: What’s it like to photograph Madonna?
A: Madonna is pretty natural, she doesn’t run. See, most of the stars want publicity. Of course they want to control it, they want to be ready, but most stars like to be photographed. Most of them are bluffing when they say “No pictures!” They’re just pretending they don’t like it. The only celebrity I would say was very sincere was Greta Garbo.
Q: Whose photo is in your book. Didn’t you feel bad photographing this elderly woman, whose clothes suggest she was trying to remain anonymous, holding a Kleenex up to cover her face? She was begging you to go away.
A: I did go away.
Q: But you printed the photo. Didn’t your conscience have even a twinge?
A: Not really. As a photographer, anything rare, you want. I understand she doesn’t want it, but I could’ve photographed her all the way to her door and I didn’t. I stopped after four or five pictures.
Q: Do you respect a star more who genuinely doesn’t want publicity?
A: Yes. I get the picture and leave, I don’t keep photographing for blocks and blocks, I’m not sadistic. Here’s where I got one-up on them: I pre-focus my camera, this has been my technique. I see somebody and surprise them, shoot fast, then they say, “No pictures!” And I leave. But I already got one or two, you see. That’s how you win. Rarely do I call a star’s name. I hate doing that, like you’re begging for a picture.
Q: If a person who wasn’t famous asked you to stop shooting, would you go ahead?
A: No. I usually respect their wishes.
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