The Estorick Collection in London usually specialises in exhibitions of modern Italian art, yet its current show contains 80 photographs portraying the period of la dolce vita, literally the sweet life, and the title of Federico Fellini’s famous 1960 film, shot in and around Rome.
Its anti-hero, Marcello Mastroianni, plays world-weary journalist Marcello Rubini and his snapper sidekick is called Paparazzo. Fellini apparently took the name from a man he met in Calabria and it is still used in one Italian dialect to mean ‘sparrow’. Fellini himself explained that the photographers hopping and scurrying around celebrities reminded him of the small birds.
The bulk of the exhibition contains the work of one of the foremost paparazzi of the era, Marcello Geppetti, who would race up and down the classy via Veneto in Rome on his trusty Vespa, Rolleiflex slung over the shoulder, in search of film actors and celebrities to snap. The Hollywood stars were usually in Rome to film at its famous Cinecittà Studios where set time was cheaper than in the USA and the crew just as talented. Italian celebrities had become used to being papped by the likes of Geppetti and his colleagues as there was a ready market for the pictures in Oggi, the best-selling gossip mag of the day, and so the two worlds of Hollywood and the Italian paparazzi came together in the Eternal City.
And there to capture it all was Geppetti. He left an archive of more than one million images and if the selection at the Estorick is typical, he was clearly more than a mere paparazzo. He made his name in serious photojournalism and American Photo magazine has described him as “the most undervalued photographer in history”. This show lends some weight to that view.
He captures a joyful and stunning Rita Hayworth in 1960; a cheeky Brigitte Bardot the following year faced by a sea of snappers as her attention is caught by a remark to make her turn round and face Geppetti’s camera. And Jean-Paul Belmondo and Ursula Andress, eating together in a quiet trattoria, probably never imagined they would be papped that night by Geppetti.
A few of the photographs in the exhibition were taken by Arturo Zavattini, Fellini’s camera operator on La Dolce Vita. These are obviously staged to a degree and therefore less spontaneous than Geppetti’s smash-and-grab style but his image of Mastroianni exhaling smoke on set, his black quiff stretching over his forehead, is memorable and evocative of the era.
BB was always up for the snappers, smiling and graceful at all times and one particular snap of her leaving a Rome restaurant in 1967 oozes star quality and sheer sexual aura.
But not everyone was pleased to see Geppetti and his colleagues. Audrey Hepburn always appeared a reluctant subject, caught wide-eyed and startled by Geppetti’s flash in a Rome street as she walks her dog, pursued on another day into a grocery store and then followed shortly after into a bakery where she seems resigned to her fate, gazing down wearily at the counter, her right arm coming up to rest on her cheek.
Occasionally, anger tips over into something more such as Franco Nero delivering a slap to Rino Barillari in 1965. But Anita Ekberg, the Swedish actress and model seen cavorting with Mastroianni in the Trevi Fountain in La Dolce Vita, is either icily furious or absolutely outraged. She is seen in a series of shots taking on the paparazzi gathered outside her house in Rome in 1960. In one she grabs a snapper by the head and attempts to knee him in the groin and in others she is even seen wielding a bow and arrow at them at point blank range. Geppetti, ever the pro, calmly snaps away at his fellow papps’ discomfort.
Geppetti must have had paid contacts in restaurants and hotels to tip him off as to where the celebs were; scooting up and down the via Veneto on the Vespa probably gave him an edge on his rivals. Either that or he paid more.
The fascination of the show is that it displays the origins of modern celebrity culture and the continuing fascination with film stars, seen as supra human in some way. Just as Fitzgerald’s rich are not like us, so neither are the creations of the film studios and they are not meant to be, for once the mystique is stripped away, they are just people and it is partly to protect this mystique and their privacy that not all snatched photos are welcomed. Some are staged for publicity purposes but many of Geppetti’s were obviously hard-won. However, if you believe that by putting themselves in the public eye and reaping all the benefits that fame can bestow on them, celebrities also have to accept that their private lives may not be so private any more, then this exhibition is a real gem.