Celebrity photojournalists: an endangered species?


Willy Rizzo, Pierre Terrasson, Jean-Marie Périer on the one hand. The Rolling Stones, Marilyn Monroe, The Cure, on the other hand. Everyone knows the latter and can easily represent them, very few people know the first ones. Close to the celebrities, those journalists contributed to their discovery and stardom… through lenses. More than simple photo shoots, celebrity photojournalists offered celebrities visibility in the media helped them become immortal and sometimes built their myth.  For all of these reasons, celebrity photojournalists were respected. But according to old timers, times have changed. Passionate photographers have been replaced by venal paparazzi. Trust between photographers and personalities has disappeared, threatening the profession.

Good Old times: recognized photographers


In the 70s, music and cinema photojournalism was an emerging occupation. Pierre Terrasson, a former French celebrity photographer remembers: “There were very few photographers specialised in rock at that time. A dozen maybe”. As rock fans they had a strong bond with rock performers. They were not competitors but a real team which used to share information about programming concerts. In order to gain credibility in both the media and celebrity spheres, photojournalists had to master the use of a camera and journalist techniques as well as understand the art world. They contributed to the formation of the modern celebrity culture. According to Rojek photographers are agents « who connect the celebrity with the common man » thanks to the mass media. Photographs are a powerful medium for staging and extending celebrity. Press and celebrities themselves quickly understood how much this imaged medium could serve their interests. Press bought photographs to illustrate their discourse and make them more enjoyable. “It was very poorly paid but as I sold my photos to several magazines I could make a living out of it”, says Pierre Terrason. In order to be mediatised, celebrities also had to cooperate with photojournalists who enjoyed an important status. “I was journalist, I had my press card, I had all the rights! I had graduated from Fine Arts, singers could not bother me” adds Terrasson. Nostalgic Willy Rizzo, a well-known former photographer who worked for Match and Vogue, evokes: « I knew the time where we could approach the most important celebrities of Hollywood without having first to call their press agents, lawyers and all the pit-bulls who protect and stunt them today”.


Such a proximity was considered normal as celebrities and photojournalists belonged to the word of art. There was an important artistic atmosphere. I would go to Gainsbourg’s place, he would play Chopin and we would talk about painting, Terrasson points. It was normal, there was no hierarchy, it was more family relationships, he states .

These privileged relationships between photographers and celebrities were reinforced by the fact that they worked in a give-and-take relationship. Richard Howells explains that the benefits which photographers gained by shootings famous people: They are valued significantly-because of whom they portray. Their works were sold and broadcasted because of the people they represent. Without the presence of their recognisable subject matter, a celebrity photographer would only be a photographer. This dependency was shared with personalities considering that they also needed the photographer to construct themselves a clean image which pleased the Medias.


Celebrities respected photographers because they knew what the latter did with them. Our job was a perpetual challenge. « When we have one hour with a celebrity, talent must be operational from the first minute. We have to immediately find an idea, the prop which synthesises the personality.

Marlene Dietrich by Willy Rizzo

For instance, the magnifying glass for Dali or a record player for Marlene Dietrich. I admire Doisneau, Cartier-Bresson but they can wait for long hours or days for the magic instant. It’s different with celebrities, it is not the same job!” said Willy Rizzo.Thanks to their know-how and talent, celebrity journalists won the trust of their models. A lot of anecdotes bear of this good time, for instance in the sixties, in Memphis a photographer who had shot Elvis with a cigar (one of his biggest pleasures), accepted the 150$ the King offered him in exchange of the shot so that his mother would not find out he was smoking! The photographers had integrity and felt responsible for the pictures they took. They were aware that they actively participated in the creation of their subjects’ stardom since their photographsconfer power and status and enshrine a public figure’s reputation for posterity”.

Photographs as celebrity relics

Vanessa Paradis by Pierre Terrasson

Sometimes celebrity photographers contributed to establish myths as their shots mummified the subject in a particular period of time. Pierre Terrasson was the official photographer of Vanessa Paradis at her beginnings. He made pictures of her Lolita period immortalizing the French singer’s adolescence. Recently, he published a book of inedited shoots of her Vanessa Paradis, les années Lolita. Their scarcity makes his photos precious and transforms them into celebrity relics for fans building an intimate relationship with the celebrity. “ The St Thomas effect”, as coined by Rojek, translates into the overwhelming need to touch the celebrity, or posses celebrity heirlooms or other discarded item is accomplished through photographs. In A New Kind of Star, Professor David R. Shumway also underlines photographs embody the tension between the possibility and the impossibility of knowing the individual. Shots remain a superficial representation of the star as they cannot really reflect the personality and thoughts of the model.

Celebrity barometers?

The presence of a photojournalists is a good omen for success as they are agents of the mediasphere. In general, celebrities are flattered by their presence and sometimes they measure their popularity in regard with the number of photographers that attend their public appearances. They are conscious of the fact that their stardom exist only through media coverage and that photographs play an important role regarding their visibility in both a proper and a figurative sense. However with time, photographers became too intrusive and destructed the established trust.

The 1990s paparazzi: Stardom Marketing & the Democratization of Cameras

« It turned to shit in the nineties when bands began to control their image. It became a big marketing business.Photographers could not work normally anymore except if they were the official photographer of celebrities », Terrasson explains. This process of absolute image control is “insisted upon today by the phalanx of agents, PR consultants and managers that surround every celebrity, has, paradoxically, created a guerrilla industry specializing in the taking and disseminating of snatched images, often captured on the run or from several hundred yards away”,  The Observer analyzes. Snapshots became the normality because of the authentic nature of the star beyond the screen or scene that they give access to as opposed to the staging of reality that posed portraits represent. Celebrities started to suffer from this chase of undesired shootings and little by little it destroyed the trust that had long existed between personalities and photographers. Worst, most celebrities exploit their image by asking money in exchange of unreleased shoots.

Now, trust is bought but at what price? In 2000, Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta Jones announced their engagement and used the media interest to sell the photographic exclusivity to OK! for a payment of £1 million. Nevertheless, another photographer managed to enter in the reception and took a number of pictures despite of hard security conditions. Then there was a trial in 2005 and the Douglas case led to the endorsement of celebrity commodity protection by the English Court of Appeal. This new law framed the “reasonable expectation of privacy” and the “industrial construction of celebrity“. Despite the law, paparazzi flourish for several reasons. In the seventies, the number of photojournalists doubled in the USA and Europe and they became a simple link more or less respected in the media industry.

Now, you have 50 guys who shoot a singer with crook digital cameras but there are not 50 magazines! It is ridiculous. Digital technologies have banalized the profession, criticizes Terrasson. Digital technology caused the industrialization of the photographic production and the centralization of the hand-crafted photographs. The market place has been disrupted and swapped its production logic for a diffusion of images of illustration[11]. The price of photos has plummeted for over 10 years. There is now a kind of conformism since photograph agencies flood the press with the same images in order to save money.

We don’t even talk about photojournalists anymore but about “contributors” who have no social rights or status! Thus, a lot of professional photographers joined the tabloid industry given that it is the only one who can justly pay them. “Whereas a picture of Bosnia cost only €300, series of shoots of Diana and Dodi kissing at Saint-Tropez could have been sold €5 millions!”

What Future for photojournalism?

According to Jean-François Leroy, the director of « Visa pour l’image » a photojournalism festival, photo reporters have to understand that they don’t need to run after snapshots because the big agencies like Reuters, Associated Press and AFP already have local correspondents as photographic sources. Today photojournalists must tell stories about the world and not just capture the instant. It requires them to know the world wide economical and social issues. However, this process of investigation implies time and money, two things which have lost their place in the instantaneous mass media system

Pierre Terrasson is now living from his old pictures. I had 50 years of photographs beyond me, I have been offered to make exhibition as I’m part of kind of collective memory, I also publish books but I don’t shoot anymore.

Celebrity photojournalists have become an endangered species.

From 15 to 31 May 2013, photos from Vanessa Paradis, les années Lolita by Pierre Terrasson will be exhibited in Sparts Gallery, 41, rue de Seine  75006 Paris.

Further Readings:

Albertine. (2013, March, 02) Décès de Willy Rizzo photographe des rois et des stars du cinéma depuis 1949, http://www.pixelistes.com/blog/deces-de-willy-rizzo-photographe-des-rois-et-des-stars-du-cinema-depuis-1949/

Almasy, P. Les pouvoirs de l’image photographique, Communication et langages, N°70, pp. 89-100, 1986.

Genestar, A. (2013, March, 25) Adieu Willy, l’homme qui aime les femmes, les pâtes, les tables basses, http://www.polkamagazine.com/20/le-mur/adieu-willy/1236

Howells, R. Heroes, saints and celebrities: the photograph as holy relic, 2011. http://www.kcl.ac.uk/artshums/depts/cmci/people/papers/howells/celebrity.pdf

Kenyon, A. & Milne, E.  Images of Celebrity: Publicity, Privacy, Law, Media & Arts Law Review, Vol. 10, No. 4, 2005. University of Melbourne Legal Studies Research Paper No. 142, http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=881706

O’Hagan, S. (2005, June, 26) Fame in the frame in The Observer, http://www.guardian.co.uk/artanddesign/2005/jun/26/photography

Rouillé, A. (1998, February, 02) Le photojournalisme broyé par le « people », http://www.monde-diplomatique.fr/1998/02/ROUILLE/10021

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