Photographers and celebrities: how a once symbiotic relationship turned hostile

by Jeremy Miles

Writing in the Guardian Roy Greenslade takes a pop at the media operators who seem to view the not-too-distant past through rose-tinted granny glasses. He takes issue particularly with veteran American celebrity photographer Brad Elterman. In the wake of the death of paparazzo Chris Guerra, killed while trying to photograph Justin Bieber’s car, Elterman has been sharing his thoughts on the changing world of the celebrity snapper.

Times have changed for celebrity photographers.

Times have changed for celebrity photographers.

He remembers the days, he says, when the paps would gather cheerily in a restaurant and wait for Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jnr to bowl in. Greetings would be exchanged, photographs would be posed for and everyone was happy. No one, says, Elterman would have had the audacity to follow the cars of the stars when they left.

Greenslade is aghast and points out that Sinatra loathed being hounded by the press and called them fags, pimps and whores. But is Elterman allowing his recollections to become blurred by a warm fog if nostalgia?

Probably not. While the relationship between the paparazzi and the showbusiness fraternity has always been edgy, in the past there were those who entered into a kind of unspoken gentleman’s agreement with the stars that, in return for a smile and a pose, they would not overstep the mark.

It was a symbiotic relationship. Everyone went home happy. The photographer had a picture in the bag and the celebrity knew that, within reason, they were free to go about their daily lives without being stalked by a bunch of lens-toting mercenaries.  Sinatra, I suspect, was happy with this arrangement because he could control it. The odd maverick or embarrassing news day would still have angered him greatly but for most of the time everyone knew how the game worked.

Sometime in the past 30 years however the whole concept of an understanding started to fall apart. What had once been seen as glamour to be admired from afar morphed into something far darker.

Celebrity magazines and even serious news organisations became obsessed with the minutia of the lives of anyone who’d been on stage or screen. A whole generation of z-listers no hopers and reality TV wannabes began to do anything to get themselves some.

Suddenly no one was safe. It was open season on the rich and famous.  Homes were staked-out, phones were hacked, dustbins were searched and lives were torn apart.

I have worked in the media for more many years. I am married to a photographer. I know what I’m talking about. It’s always been a tough business but Elterman is right. Times really have changed.

A little while back I was talking to world famous celebrity photographer Terry O’Neill who made his name in the 1960s photographing everyone fromThe Beatles and The Stones to the Hollywood greats, including Sinatra. This is how he saw it.

“I’m a very lucky man,” he told me. “I was  born at exactly right time. I was  coming up to 20 when rock ‘n’ roll was at its height and the sixties were just around the corner.  When I look back and see what  I’ve done I’m staggered.  I find I’m  totally in awe of the people I photographed now but I certainly wasn’t back then. It’s kind of funny because I took it all for granted yet it was largely down to luck. You’d never get the kind of access I enjoyed now. The PR industry has killed all that.”

He had recently photographed Amy Winehouse and was quite angry about the constant pressure she was being put under by the media.

“Look at what she has to put up with. She’s permanently surrounded by the paparazzi and they behave disgracefully.  I don’t know why this country allows it. I’d definitely ban them, I’d have them locked up.  They’re not even proper photographers. Anyone who wants to bring in a law, they’ve got my vote.“

On the face of it this rant might sound strange coming from a man who has spent his entire career following and photographing the stars.

But he argues that standards have slipped and that we are living in a world where “ any out of focus smudge will get published if it’s of someone famous enough doing something outrageous enough.”

The money-is-everything attitude that drives people to take terrible advantage absolutely appalls him. It shows a complete lack of compassion and disregard for common decency and good manners.

“ A star may be a star but they do deserve some privacy,” said O’Neill. “I’ve certainly been in situations where I could have made a lot of money had I chosen to take certain photographs, but I wouldn’t. You have to respect people’s privacy.”

I can relate to that. On a number of occasions I have acquired information or photographs that I could easily have sold but to publish them would have meant betraying the trust of the subject. There would have to be a very good reason for doing that. Most times there wasn’t.