Feature (ii)

The culture of oppression // Part 1

Federico Fellini’s masterpiece of contemporary Roman life, La Dolce Vita, opens with a statue of Christ, suspended from a helicopter, being flown over Rome on its way to the Vatican. Another helicopter containing the central character, the tabloid journalist Marcello, and the photographer Paparazzo is in pursuit: Christ had become a celebrity, and his “second coming” was just another tabloid story, a story not even important enough to command the full attention of the journalists as they have their helicopter wheel around to hover over four young, scantily clad women sunbathing on a high-rise rooftop in a futile attempt to exchange phone numbers.

Marcello is then depicted in a fashionable club taking notes, courtesy of his informants among the staff, on what an unnamed member of European royalty, “the prince”, had to eat and drink. Paparazzo, against the club management’s express veto, ambushes the royal cavorting at his table with a woman and snaps a shot of the pair before being evicted. Towards the end of the film, press photographers including Paparazzo

contemptuously ignore police Commissario Lucenti’s request to “please… show consideration, for once”, and hound Signora Steiner in the hope of capturing the moment she is told her two children and husband are dead, the victims of murder–suicide.1

That Fellini chose to draw attention to a new breed of predatory press journalist is not surprising. The iconic La Dolce Vita premièred in Rome and Milan in February 1960 but was produced in 1959, and Italian cinema of the 1950s shared time and place with the rise of paparazzo photography. While generally acknowledged that “examples of ‘candid’ photography” existed before the 1950s, and not just in Italy, “the modern paparazzo shot crystallize[d] in Rome” during this period.2

Rome became the birthplace and international centre of paparazzi photography when, from the late 1940s, the US film industry began taking advantage of favourable, politically motivated Italian cinema laws and increasingly used the Italian capital’s substantial film-production facilities; by the mid 1950s, Rome-based production had proved so beneficial

to the big American studios that it was known as “Hollywood on the Tiber”.3 When the international “stars” arrived in force, the big studios’ exclusive management of their publicity was broken. Rome’s sidewalk caffès, bars and narrow streets provided an ideal environment for a new style of photography that thrived on capturing images of hitherto unreachable screen idols in everyday situations.4 This period also coincided with Europe’s postwar economic recovery and with more accessible international travel in what has been described as “the dawn of the jet set”.5

At least as important as the physical environment and historical circumstances, however, was the culture of street-level photography that had developed in Rome immediately after the war: young “itinerant” photographers, scattini (“snappers”), would actively engage with soldiers and tourists to take their photograph and then sell prints to them as souvenirs. The scattini

focused on the interactions with their subjects, and on the charades involved with the shooting itself,

rather than on technique… They learned English phrases to coax a sale out of a customer… They engaged in bartering and other tactics… [but] As the cultural memory of the war begins to fade, many of the young photographers attach themselves to photo agencies. As proto-paparazzi, they transfer their skills to a new activity – shooting stars or people of note. They retain their mobility, and their images reflect a peculiar, tense relationship between photographer and subject, a temporal game where, at the very least, one can say that the subjects do not pose before a neutral camera, but engage in some form of banter with the shooters, who themselves gain notoriety.6

This banter between shooter and subject quickly developed into the more intrusive, aggressive and unscrupulous behaviour for which paparazzi have become notorious. In fact, Tazio Secchiaroli, one of the original scattini and “the first paparazzo”, is also known as the pioneer of “assault photography”; and he was Fellini’s role model for the