Weegee (Arthur Fellig) Marilyn Monroe c1950s

Weegee (Arthur Fellig)
Marilyn Monroe c1950s
© Weegee / International Center of Photography / Getty Images

The notion of celebrity as we know it today is inseparable from the invention of photography. By the 1860s, photographic studio portraits allowed notable figures to become instantly recognisable to the public. However, this period of controlled self-publicity was short-lived. Smaller, more portable cameras allowed for covert picture-taking during private moments, and faster shutter speeds opened up opportunities for capturing subjects off-guard. Whilst some famous figures have manipulated the medium to their advantage, the infringement of privacy represented by such photographs remains controversial.

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As far back as the early 1880s, Italian photographer Giuseppe Primoli was taking impromptu snapshots of the rich and famous in embarrassing situations, such as artist Edgar Degas leaving a pissoir. One of the earliest figures to deliberately exploit the potential of the camera to construct a celebrity persona was the Countess of Castiglione, a Florentine noblewoman and courtesan. Aided by photographer Pierre-Louis Pierson, the Countess devised elaborate private fantasies to enact in front of the camera.

Some more recent icons have been less willing to invite the photographer’s gaze. His intrusive photographs of Jackie Kennedy made Ron Galella one of the most notorious paparazzi, devoted to the candid image-taking of celebrities for publication in the press. The Italian word derives from ‘Paparazzo’ a fictional news photographer in Fellini’s film La Dolce Vita, whose real world equivalents, such as Tazio Secchiaroli and Marcello Geppetti, were famed for their relentless pursuit of film stars and other celebrities. The angry reactions of their targets are obvious from their hounded expressions and violent outbursts.

Contemporary photographer Alison Jackson has exploited the comic potential of this genre through her staged photographs of celebrity lookalikes. Jackson takes the candid picture to an extreme, picturing her ‘celebrities’ in their most intimate moments.