The paparazzi: snapshots of a controversial profession

Photographers in bushes. Celebrities complaining about privacy violation. Law suits against the media. Such is the world of some modern-day paparazzi, but it wasn’t always that way

The paparazzi get a bad press, with variations on the same story appearing in broadsheets every few months: a photographer hiding in the bushes; a famous person exasperated; a complaint about privacy violation. Recently, it was the parents of baby Prince George – Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge – taking legal action against a freelance photographer who had been “monitoring” their infant son in London parks.

In Ireland this year, it was newsreader Sharon Ní Bheoláin, who complained on Liveline about a person who photographed her for the Irish Mirror walking her dog while wearing tartan pyjamas. "This isn't the Kardashians, for God's sake. I may be on the television every night, but my lifestyle is very, very ordinary," she said at the time.

Paparazzi photographers take pictures of high-profile people in their ordinary, vulnerable moments. They do this within laws that state anyone can be photographed in a public place. A new book of photographs pushes aside moral concerns. Paparazzo: The Elio Sorci Collection is a book of high-class paparazzi photography documenting Hollywood movie stars in their ordinary, vulnerable moments.

Paparazzo covered celebrity culture in Rome in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, when papping wasn't seen as the grubby profession it is seen as now. The death of Lady Diana Spencer in a paparazzi car chase didn't happen until 1997, so these were innocent times for social photographers.

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Elio Sorci, who died last year aged 82, ran a successful photographic agency in Rome from 1955. Sorci is said to have been the first paparazzo, though the word was only coined in 1960 when Fellini used it for a character in La Dolce Vita. Fellini told Time magazine the word paparazzo suggested to him a "buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging".

Sorci's press photographers were stealthy, usually charming young men who roamed the city on Vespas and Lambrettas. They called themselves fotografo d'assalto (assault photographers) and used a network of sources – from drivers and doormen to hotel staff – to get the scoops. There were plenty of scoops, as from the 1950s the Cinecitta Studios were making classics such as Roman Holiday, Cleopatra and La Dolce Vita. The studios were dubbed "Hollywood on the Tiber".

Workaday voyeurism

Paparazzi may have been parasitic in their approach, but they were also craftsmen. There is more storytelling in the candid shots collected in Paparazzo than in any studio shot. Workaday voyeurism was an art. Audrey Hepburn is mesmerising, staring blankly in a shop, hand on head, or looking tired and glazed at parties. Depletion is written all over John Wayne's bleary eyes as he draws on a fag at Ciampino airport. Goldie Hawn looks mildly annoyed at the intrusion. Paul Newman is snapped standing confidently and at ease. Elizabeth Taylor, meanwhile, was to receive rabid paparazzi treatment, and thorough documentation of her affair with Richard Burton is given in the book.

It's notable from the lavish eye candy that paparazzi pictures have gone downhill. The appeal of seeing celebrities doing everyday things endures because, out and about, famous people look a little bit more like us. Or even better, a little bit worse than us. Heat magazine and the Daily Mail prove that cellulite and sadness sell.

Then again, in 2014 paparazzi-style photography doesn’t seem so bad, when not even a naked selfie can be kept safe from internet hackers, and regrettable videos go rogue on social media. Perhaps it’s just that knack time has of softening the edges, but it feels like time to honour the paparazzi – or at least the more interesting ones.

Paparazzi can certainly shake things up. Two relationship fallouts were caused in recent years due to the long lens of the uninvited snapper. When Nigella Lawson was held at the throat by Charles Saatchi outside Scott's of Mayfair last year, photographs were published in the Sunday People a week after the incident, and the celebrity chef moved out from her home with Saatchi that day. The police got involved, the couple divorced, and more people reported domestic abuse to charities.

Then "Hollande Sauce", when the French gossip magazine Closer pursued President François Hollande from the Élysée palace to his meeting place with actor Julie Gayet. The day the evidence was published, Hollande's official partner, Valérie Trierweiler, left the palace.

Of course, sizing up the value of these images brings us to that blurry place between public interest and public prurience. But if the affair had been raging for two years, since before Hollande (and Trierweiler) were elected, the pictures were fair game. If your head of state is conducting an affair over two years with the help of government security, as Hollande was, you want to know about it.

Citizen paparazzi

The question for today is whether smartphones and their megapixel cameras leave the work of the paparazzo redundant. We all have the tools of the trade to be what we might call citizen paparazzi. Anyone could have spotted chef Dylan McGrath ordering a Burger King late on a Saturday night, captured the moment and sent it into Broadsheet.ie, and someone did. The schadenfraude felt almost justified. The celebrity myth was taken down with the evidence that a Michelin-starred chef goes for Saturday night soakage too.

You only need to imagine a culture in which all images of celebrities were as perfectly edited as Kim Kardashian’s selfies to see the pap shot for what it is, an ordinary moment.

Paparazzo: The Elio Sorci Collection is published by Roads Publishing, £60

THE IRISH PAPARAZZI: 'WE BASICALLY HANG ABOUT'

Ireland has a small but steadfast paparazzi presence. The two main paparazzi working in Dublin are freelancer Mark Doyle, known for his leather one-piece and scooter; and Cathal Burke, who works for the photo agency VIP Ireland, which supplies celebrity photographs to international media seven days a week. "We photograph people out and about on the streets and at functions, premieres, outside radio stations," says Burke. "We keep an eye on events and basically hang about."

When there is a visiting celebrity, Burke might get a friendly tip-off from a shop owner, he says. For celebrities living in Ireland, “you use your intuition, your radar”. Burke is well-known along Dublin’s South William Street and for asking before he paps. Sources say that if minor celebrities want their picture in the paper, they go to South William Street to find the flashbulbs. Burke says the work has taught him “patience and a good eye. We have to be very quick, there’s a very small window in which you can photograph someone moving.” People can walk into the frame; it happened when Sean Penn and Jim Sheridan were walking out of the Merrion Hotel earlier this year and a passerby spoiled the opportunity.

Burke takes “mostly women”, whose pictures are “more likely to sell”. A picture is needed when a story breaks, such as news of Amy Huberman’s pregnancy. Burke photographed the actor shopping outside George’s Street Arcade, and she posed for the picture. “She’s co-operative. She’ll smile. She knows me by name.

“I see celebs the same as everyone, they just do a different job, but people are fascinated by celebrity,” says Burke.