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Oh Snap! 20 Landmark Paparazzi Moments

The biggest breakups and beatdowns from the frontlines of celebrity documentation



It's been more than 50 years since Federico Fellini first thrust the term "paparazzo" into the public lexicon with La Dolce Vita, and in that time, the relationship between photographer and celebrity has somehow become more bizarre than his famously fantastical film could have ever predicted.

Thanks to their omnipresent cameras, the paparazzi have helped blur the line between public and private, documenting triumphs and tragedies, breakups and meltdowns, and just about everything in between. And though their subjects claim to hate them, those same photographers are directly responsible for keeping the very famous, well, very famous. It's a symbotic relationship in every sense of the word (except when it ends in a punch-up, of course).

Here's a look at some of the most memorable moments in that relationship; the highs and lows from five decades of co-dependence, with the occasional threat of bodily harm thrown in for good measure. Love them or hate them, one thing is clear: the paparazzi are here to stay. By James Montgomery




la dolce vita

Courtesy Everett Collection

‘La Dolce Vita’ Introduces the World to ‘Paparazzo’

Federico Fellini's 1960 film features a conflicted journalist, a beautiful actress and a famed fountain scene — not to mention a pesky photographer named Paparazzo, after an Italian word used to describe a buzzing mosquito. The character was inspired by actual tabloid photographers of the day, and meant to represent Rome's growing obsession with celebrity culture. The character also gave rise to the phrase "paparazzi," and five decades later, his descendants are buzzing louder than Fellini could have ever imagined.

Elizabeth Taylor Richard Burton

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Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton Go Public

Theirs was the star-crossed celebrity relationship to end all star-crossed celebrity relationships — as evidenced by all the bottle smashing in last year's Liz & Dick — and they went public (whether they wanted to or not) with an infamous 1962 paparazzi pic, snapped in Italy during the filming of Cleopatra. Both were massive stars, not to mention married at the time, and the photo of them lounging on a yacht caused a scandal so large that even the Vatican weighed in, calling Taylor and Burton's affair "erotic vagrancy."

Jacqueline Onassis

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Jacqueline Onassis, One Man’s ‘Mona Lisa’

So-called "King of the Paparazzi" Ron Galella covered celebs with such fervor that one of his frequent subjects, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, got a restraining order against him. But that obsession paid off (for Galella, at least) with a series of iconic images, including Windswept Jackie, taken on Madison Avenue in New York City as Galella followed the former First Lady in a taxi cab. It remains the King's favorite photo, and he commonly refers to it as "My Mona Lisa." Not creepy at all, dude.

marlon brando

Ron Galella/WireImage

Marlon Brando Packs a Punch

Sometimes, the celebs hit back — literally. In 1973, after being hounded by Galella, Marlon Brando decked him outside a NYC restaurant, breaking the photographer's jaw and knocking out five of his teeth. The punch would end up costing Brandon a reported $40,000, but he definitely got his message across: The next time the two crossed paths, Galella made sure he brought protection – in the form of a football helmet.

jack nicholson

Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage

Jack Nicholson, Friend to Photographers Everywhere

Few celebs have had as acrimonious a relationship with the paparazzi as Jack Nicholson, as countless photos prove. One memorable moment: In 1976, the actor was vacationing in St. Tropez when he spotted a gaggle of photographers snapping away and decided to reward their persistence by dropping trou. It was a classically Jack move, though we're glad he hasn't attempted to replicate it in recent years

david bowie

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David Bowie Gives Good Face

For all the back-and-forth battles, occasionally, celebs and paparazzo do manage to form friendships, as evidenced by the relationship between David Bowie and photographer Richard Young. For more than 40 years, Bowie has allowed Young unprecedented access into his life, which has led to no shortage of candid, off-the-cuff images and portraits, including a lively series shot backstage at the London club Dingwalls.

sean penn

Ron Galella/WireImage

Sean Penn’s Endless War

Of course, in the case of Sean Penn, all that goodwill goes right out the window. For four decades — beginning with his high-profile relationship with Madonna in the mid-Eighties — the mercurial actor has waged war on the paparazzi, punching, kicking, and, according to legend, even dangling one very unlucky photographer off a ninth-story balcony (for which he supposedly faced attempted murder charges). He's mellowed a bit in recent years, though someone should probably tell his son Hopper that the war is over.

princess diana

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Princess Diana, Hounded to the End

Rarely has the dark side of the relationship between photographer and (unwilling) subject been as apparent as in the case of Diana, Princess of Wales. Her 1981 wedding to Prince Charles was watched on television by an estimated 750 million, and from that moment on, her every move was documented by the unrelenting paparazzi. She was hounded until her death in a 1997 automobile accident, which, according to initial reports, may have been the result of her driver attempting to outrun photographers. Subsequent findings would remove the blame from the paparazzi, though that didn't do much to change the feelings of the millions that mourned "the People's Princess."

Michael Jackson Madonna

Ron Galella/WireImage

When Michael Met Madonna

It's Michael Jackson and Madonna, together on the Academy Awards red carpet — you can probably guess how the paparazzi reacted. Almost a quarter-century later, it's still not clear why the two icons attended the ceremony together (Madonna maintains they went as friends), though they certainly accomplished one goal: This photo of the unlikely pair quickly became a sensation, not to mention a rather perfect encapsulation of a particular decade of pop.

tupac shakur 2pac

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Tupac Tells Photogs ‘You’re Number One’

There are plenty of Tupac Shakur photos that capture the iconic outlaw at his most defiant. As an artist, Shakur was fearless, and his photos bristle with that same electric aggression: Whether he was spitting at photographers, or merely flipping them the bird, he always brought the fight to the people. After his death in 1996, he left behind volumes of unreleased music, but it's moments like this one that sum him up best. 

justin timberlake cameron diaz

James Devaney/WireImage

Justin Timberlake and Cameron Diaz, #Surfboardt

Following his high-profile breakup with Britney Spears, Timberlake rebounded with another headline-grabbing relationship, dating actress Cameron Diaz. The couple managed to keep their love secret for a time, though the after the paparazzi captured them kissing in the surf, the cat was out of the bag (and in a wetsuit). More proof that, when the paps are on your trail, nothing is confidential — especially when they break out the long lenses.

Michael Jackson balcony blanket

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Michael Jackson Brings Blanket to the Brink

The King of Pop's reign was already on shaky ground in 2002, especially after earlier allegations of sexual misconduct and a pair of divorces. But this photo, which showed him dangling his 9-month-old son Prince Michael II off the balcony of Berlin's Hotel Adlon, certainly didn't do him any favors. It was just one moment – Jackson had been waiving to throngs of fans below – but it played perfectly into the tabloids' narrative that he was becoming increasingly unhinged, and further swayed the public's perception of the once infallible superstar. Ironically, when the photo was shot, Jackson was in Berlin to accept an award for his charity work on behalf of children.


Britney Spears Goes Bald, Brandishes an Umbrella

For better or worse, it's become one of the decade's most identifiable images: Britney, the former Princess of Pop, unhinged. Her head shaved and her eyes wild, she bashed a vehicle with an umbrella, the final chapter in a three-year fall from grace. Spears claimed her bizarre behavior was the result of her getting "carried away" in her research for a movie role, but most seemed to think it signified her hitting rock bottom. Of course, Britney would rebound as only Britney could: with Blackout, an album that's come to be hailed as a pop classic.

hugh grant

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Hugh Grant Gets Creative

How very British: In 2007, paparazzi fave Hugh Grant fought back, tossing a Tupperware container of baked beans at a photog waiting outside his home. The U.K. tabloids would have a field day with this one, and Grant was even arrested on suspicion of assault, though prosecutors declined to press charges. No word on the status of the beans, however.

Chris Martin Coldplay

Mario Magnani/Getty Images

Chris Martin Demands ‘Respect’

The laid-back Coldplay frontman was pushed too far in 2008, after paparazzi tried to photograph his wife, Gwyneth Paltrow as she exited a New York hospital. Martin sprung into action, throwing a pap to the ground and snatching the camera from his hand. "You've got to have some respect," the defensive daddy growled. Message received.

Kristen Stewart Rupert Sanders

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K-Stew and R-Patz Go K-Put

Kristen Stewart's relationship with Robert Pattinson came to a rather abrupt end in 2012, after paparazzi scored photos of her in the arms of her Snow White and the Huntsman director Rupert Sanders… who also happened to be married at the time. As any Twi-hard will tell you, it wasn't supposed to end this way.

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Justin Bieber, SuperThug

Justin Bieber went berserk on British photographers in 2013, after one of them claimed that a mere brush-by constituted assault. The pap in question kept talking (he called Bieber a "fucking little cock,") at which point JB leapt from a van looking for a fight. We can understand why he'd want to punch the dude, but we're still unclear why Bieber was dressed like PaRappa the Rapper.

GVK/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

Kanye West Flies the Unfriendly Skies

Note to photographers: Do not step to Kanye West, especially when he's at the airport. In 2013, 'Ye had two separate incidents with paparazzi at LAX, and though he managed to avoid any serious legal trouble, he definitely let it be known that he wouldn't be a willing subject. And, hey, at least he's got some new material for those onstage rants.

Tan Honda/AFP/Getty Images

Alec Baldwin: Coffee is for Punchers Only

Much like Kanye, Alec Baldwin probably won't be sending Christmas cards to the paparazzi any time soon. For decades, he's enjoyed an adversarial relationship with the media, though in 2013, things boiled over when he attacked a photog outside of his Manhattan apartment – and allegedly used an anti-gay slur while doing so, a move that cost him his MSNBC show, and had him proclaiming "Goodbye, public life."

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Bjork Bashes a Reporter in Bangkok

Anyone who's heard Björk sing knows she's capable of summoning a mighty roar, and the same can be said about her rage. At least that's what one unlucky reporter discovered in 1996, when, after greeting the singer at a Bangkok airport, she was subjected to some old-fashioned Icelandic ire. Björk snapped, tearing at the journalist's hair and tossing her to the ground — the end result of what her record label described as "days of harassment." She'd subsequently apologize for the outburst, though 12 years later, she'd strike again, this time attacking a photographer at Auckland International Airport.