Eugene “Gene” Spatz (1943-2003) was a pioneer of the paparazzi movement in America. Coined by the film director, Federico Fellini, in his seminal work La Dolce Vita, the term “paparazzo” is often believed to be a corruption of the Italian word for a large and bothersome mosquito, but Spatz was decidedly more engaging and less confrontational than most of his peers. A keen observer from a very young age, he wielded his camera to give the public captivating insight into the fabulous lives of New York, Hollywood and other celebrities during the 1970s and 80s. Instead of being swatted away, Spatz patiently inched closer and closer to get the perfect shot. Now we reap the benefits in his enthralling collection of work on POBA.
The eldest of three children, Spatz was born in Brooklyn, NY but spent most of his formative years in Long Island before moving to Manhattan’s West Village. Even more so than now, the Greenwich Village of the 1970s and 80s was a cultural mecca, filled to the brim with the cream of the celebrity crop. Numerous actors, writers, filmmakers, artists, politicians, musicians and sports stars either called the Village home or frequented it, and Spatz shot as many of them as he could.
In 1979 New York Magazine quoted Gene as saying, “Ninety-five percent of what I do is very sedate” – although the resultant photographs are anything but. The range of personalities and styles in his photos is vast, including the likes of Andy Warhol, Robert DeNiro, Muhammad Ali, John Lennon, Mary Tyler Moore, Carrie Fisher, OJ Simpson, Liza Minelli, Katherine Hepburn, Paul Newman, Michael Jackson, John Belushi and many members of the Kennedy family are but a sampling of the legions of cultural figures that found their way in front of Spatz’s shutter. He took his images on the street, on film sets, at major celebrity events and parties, concerts and performances, and at clubs, most notably Studio 54 in its heyday. His collected images form a dossier on what “celebrity” meant in New York during that fascinating time.
Spatz’s pictures were published in major news outlets such as The National Inquirer, The Globe, Modern Screen, People, and Esquire, and in books about performers such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. His work was celebrated at The Kentucky Museum of Art and Craft in a 2013 solo exhibition, Gene Spatz: The Art of a Paparazzo!
Spatz looked for the human side of his subjects. By 1981 he shifted this human focus, and his camera’s lens, to his family. He also began photographing nature to capture fish, birds and the seasons for fishing and outdoor magazines. As a boy he spent much of his time in the outdoors with his father – he returned to this natural world in his later years, leaving the star studded streets of 1980s New York to live forever in his pictures.