By Alexandra Zabjek
The day started early for Dennis Van Tine and 50-odd photographers gathered outside Manhattan’s Ziegfeld Theater for the premiere of Nicole Kidman’s newest flick. Many arrived at 9 a.m., signed in for a spot beside the red carpet, then waited. And waited. And waited some more.
When the stunning Aussie arrived almost 10 hours later, transforming the walkway into a frenzy of flashing cameras, jostling bodies and shouted requests (“Nicole! Look this way!”), most hoped she would give a little face time to the pack.
But Kidman posed for roughly five minutes before moving down the carpet, her slim figure then only visible on digital camera screens.
Ten hours for five minutes? Was it worth it?
Van Tine, who took just a two-hour break from the Ziegfeld that day to shoot other events, is philosophical about the business. “Celebrity is king,” he said. “Celebrity is where the money is.”
This pack of paparazzi—or celebrity photographers, as many prefer to be called—was an eclectic mix of professionals, part-timers and adventurers who would rather be covering wars in Central Asia if it would earn a better paycheck. Often vilified by the stars they cover and even by the public that thirsts for their pictures, these photographers say they’re just doing their jobs.
And the first problem, they say, is that word: paparazzi.
“We’re photographers,” said Van Tine, a former Wall Street worker who’s been shooting celebrities since 1998. “People want to categorize or pigeonhole ... but there are lots of photographers who move between genres.”
The lines that separate these photographers are fuzzy at best. Van Tine works a lot of organized celebrity events, but also doesn’t shy from snapping stars shopping in SoHo. Celebrities on the street are fair game, say many photographers, who add that paparazzi are the folk who lurk in bushes and surprise the stars in their cars.
Van Tine didn’t start out with his camera pointed at celebrities. He published his first photograph after snapping a shot at the 1993 World Trade Center bombing. Hooked on photography, he didn’t immerse himself in the celebrity scene until a few years later, building up a collection of celebrity pictures to sell to agencies.
For freelancers, planning their pictures is an important part of the job. A generic headshot of Kidman might be sold to an agency for just $75, but over the years the shot can be used again and again, earning a commission each time. Compare this to the “exclusive” of say, Lindsay Lohan with a brand new hairstyle, which might earn a few thousand dollars just once.
“The economics of it are not sound,” Van Tine said of stakeouts, where photographers wait outside restaurants and hotels for stars. “If you’re waiting, your camera’s not firing, and you’re not making money.”
2,000 Pictures A Day
Van Tine shoots about 2,000 pictures a day on his Nikon D2X. Digital cameras—Van Tine carries two in his bag, along with five lenses, a battery pack and a baseball cap for rain—have brought more people to the celebrity scene, creating photographers out of folks who might not have cut it in the age of film cameras.
Indeed, many celebrity photographers are former fans who have exchanged their autograph pens for cameras. But Van Tine said he had little interest in celebrities, “I’m like the heroin dealer ... I don’t touch the stuff.”
Van Tine is perhaps an anomaly in a country seemingly obsessed with the nitty-gritty details of celebrities’ personal lives. Entertainment magazines have steady circulations, and who hasn’t picked up a copy of Star or People while waiting in a supermarket line?
“What we’re really consuming is the story,” said Neal Gabler, a cultural critic at the University of Southern California at Annenberg. Stories of sex, glamour and suspense are great entertainment, he said. “The fact that the people are real ... makes the celebrity narrative even more powerful.”
Photographers and celebrities have always had an uneasy relationship. At the turn of the 20th century, celebrities sued photographers over rights to their photographed images, Gabler said. By the 1950s, tabloid magazines like Confidential began publishing intrusive photos and gossip, perhaps setting the precedent for the ultrapersonal shots that dominate the media spotlight today.
Some stars have sued photographers for invasion of privacy, but others appear to have reluctantly accepted the situation. A publicist for the much-hounded Olsen twins, who attend New York University, said, “It’s a daily reality of their lives ... and you can’t let it change your life.”
Despite conflicts, there’s an obvious, reciprocal relationship between stars and the press: Each needs the other to make money. A star’s fame is perhaps more important than his or her work, said Gabler, noting that Britney Spears’ face is better known than her music. In order to maintain that fame, “You need all the apparatus, including the paparazzi,” he said.
Enter John Roca: professional photographer who’s not afraid to risk life, limb and camera to capture stars at their intimate moments.
Roca, a freelance photographer and staffer for the New York Daily News, has been covering celebrities since the glory days of Studio 54, when A-list stars in the 1970s engaged in dancing and debauchery at the famous nightclub. Roca has also toted his camera to political trouble spots like Northern Ireland and Haiti, with celebrity photography financing his trips.
Roca’s portfolio is stocked with shots of big name celebrities from the past, which still earn him money today. Some of the hottest commodities right now are 1980s shots of Michael Jackson posing with children. These stock pictures are big money earners for celebrity photographers and, said Roca, “That’s the common denominator here: It’s money, money, money.”