“That looks like Leona Lewis,” says paparazzo Giles Harrison quietly from behind the wheel of his car. He peers out of the rolled-down window and slows down in the Beverly Hills traffic to get a better look.
He can’t be sure whether the young woman dressed in beige, picking at a salad on the terrace of a restaurant, is indeed the British pop star who rose to fame in the early 2000s after winning The X Factor. Her celebrity may have waned in recent years but her photograph would still sell. “I don’t think it is,” he says, craning his neck away from the road.
Nonetheless, we go in for another look. “My job is to take pictures,” says Harrison as he loops around the block, hoping for a better approach. “I want to get the shot. Not just sit there and wish that I had.” We arrive at the lunch spot again and the car slows to a crawl. No, on second glance, it isn’t her. So we drive on, chalking up another fleeting near-miss in what has, so far, been a slow day on the daily round that Harrison has been doing for almost 25 years.
For many paparazzi in LA such slow days have become the norm recently. As the notion of celebrity has diversified, so have the pedestals that hold it aloft. Instagram, particularly, has meant that celebrities can now largely control their own image rather than have it dictated to them by a paparazzo, garnering lucrative advertising deals and tens of millions of “likes” in the process.
“The thing now with social media is that everyone’s a reality star,” says Jennifer Laski, photo and video director at The Hollywood Reporter and Billboard magazines, whose sleek photography sits at the other end of the spectrum to paparazzi imagery. Founded as a trade daily in 1930, The Hollywood Reporter was turned into a glossy weekly in 2010 by its then editorial director Janice Min. On the walls of Laski’s office inside the magazine’s building in Miracle Mile is a collection of her favourite celebrity portraits, including a black-and-white pap shot of Jacqueline Kennedy. “I’d say my style is classic,” she says of photography she chooses to publish in the magazine. “I’m not saying you shouldn’t follow trends but what’s important to me is the legacy of the brand. We’re a news organisation and our news is entertainment – but we don’t objectify people. It’s about respect.” There’s definitely no room for amateur shots in this world.
LA’s paparazzi are, in many ways, like the black-cab drivers of London who are mandated to memorise the city street by street, lane by lane, before they can get behind the wheel (a skill referred to as The Knowledge). Gone are the days when a set of exclusive pap shots could fetch somewhere between $150,000 and $200,000. The networks of informants – such as the airline stewards who would fax annotated breakdowns of the cabin in which celebrities and their entourage were seated, or the waiter at a restaurant who would call in the presence of a famous diner for a price – have diminished too. “The exclusives are harder now,” says photographer Randy Bauer, sheltering from the sun in an alleyway behind Hollywood Boulevard, near the stage door to late-night talk show Jimmy Kimmel Live! “A maître d’ will call up and say, ‘Tom Cruise is coming for dinner’ but you show up and there’s 10 other photographers there who’ve been tipped off too.”
Kimmel’s celebrity guests tonight include actor Don Cheadle and model Zoë Kravitz. Bauer and the other members of his pack lie patiently in wait. “Celebrities are now filling the appetites themselves; they’re their own self-generating publicity machines,” he says. Bauer is one of LA’s most recognisable paparazzi: he cut his teeth in New York in the early 1980s as an apprentice to legendary paparazzo Ron Gallela, who is often referred to as the grandfather of the genre. “It’s harder now, it takes a lot to excite an audience.”
What once galvanised commissioning editors and readers alike were the CIA-like infiltration missions of off-limits celebrity events. Budgets for these stories were vast, surpassed only by the lengths the photographers would go to in order to snap an exclusive. Biplanes and helicopters were hired, homeowners whose living rooms backed onto the venue of a celebrity wedding were bought off – all to ensure the moment was caught. But as celebrities have taken to disclosing intimate details of their own routines via social media, paparazzi shots have ended up losing their titillating appeal.
Yet paparazzi photography has survived existential threats before. When Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in Paris in 1997, many assumed the game was up. “We all thought that was it,” says Bauer. “The witch hunt that followed; the blame that fell on the paparazzi for her death.” The opposite ended up being true. “Those years turned out to be the gold-rush period. TV was doing very well, the web was becoming prominent. Print entities were still successful and were in deep competition with each other. That was a golden age for us.”
The ascent of celebrity websites such as TMZ and the US iteration of the UK newspaper site MailOnline kept fuelling a hunger for snapshots of the rich, famous and frequently badly behaved. Yet, given the erosion of print and the upending of traditional TV outlets, competition in the celebrity editorial space has thinned dramatically, meaning that a handful of outlets have a stranglehold on the narratives of fame. “The demand is still there but the supply is greater. Ten years ago we were dealing in thousands, tens of thousands per image. Now we’re dealing in pennies,” says Bauer, once the clattering chorus of camera shutters stops abruptly as Don Cheadle is escorted into the TV studio.
“Audiences have this insatiable appetite for celebrity content: we call it the Kardashian effect,” says Kirstin Benson, vice-president of Global Entertainment at Getty Images, the photo-licensing agency that was founded in 1995. “The paparazzi world has shifted quite a bit. While that kind of photography is not our bread and butter, we do accept some ‘celebrity candids’.” In recent years many veteran paparazzi photographers have taken to licensing some of their work through Getty, as other once-lucrative clients have ebbed. “Today’s celebrity is very different from the celebrity of 20 years ago,” says Benson. “This is a world of niche personalities. It’s important for us, as a global company, to refresh our knowledge of who these influencers are.”
Back in his car, Giles Harrison thinks he’s spotted Blac Chyna – a model and satellite member of the Kardashian dynasty – in the passenger seat of a white car up ahead so we tail it from a few cars’ distance. “The Kardashians could be reading the phone book and those photos would still sell,” he says, as we snake through traffic. For a paparazzo, navigating LA is also about knowing the undulating landscape of fame. Who’s in, who’s out, who’s in the ascendancy, who’s on the wane? Which breakout star in the latest Netflix hit might whet the appetites of a photo editor? Where do Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger like to smoke cigars together on a Friday lunchtime when they’re both in town? (Caffé Roma in Beverly Hills.) Where do the glamorous daughters of billionaire Bernie Ecclestone go to dine on a Thursday evening in LA? (Madeo near Rodeo Drive.) “The photography is actually a very small part of it,” says Harrison as we crawl along Hollywood Boulevard. “It’s journalism first. The image is only about 40 per cent of it; the rest is knowing why you’re taking the photo in the first place.”
The erosion of the market for paparazzi photography has forced many photographers to diversify. Some have started T-shirt lines printed with their images. Others, like Harrison, are developing apps that will tap into the burgeoning user-generated space by licensing photos to websites, TV and magazines and taking a hefty cut for themselves. “At the moment, if you take an iPhone picture of a celebrity, you probably aren’t going to know what it’s worth. You make nothing because you were silly enough to post it on, say, YouTube, which makes ad revenue from your post.” “I still make a good living,” he says as we continue our journey from West Hollywood to Silver Lake. “But not as good as I used to.” At its height, his agency London Entertainment made $1m a year. “Now, though, we’re all competing with this,” he says, lifting up his smartphone. “At the end of the day we’re all fighting for a piece of the same pie,” he adds, eyes on the road. “Paparazzi have this reputation for being ruthless and some are. But I think it’s only as adversarial as the celebrity wants it to be. It’s been good to me. And I’m not in it for the money – I’m in it because I like what I do.”
When many celebrity photographers stopped considering magazines their main market, they turned to their famous subjects as clients instead. Kevin Mazur, the photographer and director of the 2012 documentary Sellebrity (which unpicks the evolution of the paparazzi industry) c0-founded his WireImage celebrity photography agency back in 2001. He quickly became the go-to for portraits: Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys were among his key clients at the time.
In 2007, WireImage was bought by Getty Images. It was the beginning of a pattern in the industry: independent agencies were either bought out, merged with their rivals or shut altogether. But the celebrity photographer didn’t vanish: these days shots posted by stars on their Instagram accounts are often the work of professional photographers.