Point, Click, Flash: A Quick and Dirty History of the Paparazzi

They've been immortalized by Lady Gaga, caused Kanye West to repeatedly lose his shit, and been blamed for Princess Di's tragic death. We are speaking, of course, of the paparazzi, those salivating bloodhounds who feed our salacious hunger for all things celebrity while toeing (or outright crossing) the line on ethics and integrity.

Whatever your opinions on these greedy camera-snappers, there's no denying they are a powerful cultural force. But how did they come to be?

In honor of the Paris exhibit Paparazzi! Photographers, Stars and Artists, which will be wrapping up June 9—and on the heels of the paparazzi orgy surrounding Kimye's feverishly reported-on wedding—here's a quick and dirty paparazzi primer:

  • The word "paparazzi" first appeared in Federico Fellini's famed 1960 film La Dolce Vita, which featured a photographer character named "Paparazzo." While the exact roots of the word are disputed, many claim it's based on papataceo, the Italian word for (how apt!) an oversize mosquito. Fellini himself said:

Paparazzo suggests to me a buzzing insect, hovering, darting, stinging.

  • The first American use of the word appeared in the ominously titled 1961Time article, "Paparazzi on the Prowl." The article called this newly minted group a "ravenous wolf pack of freelance photographers who stalk big names for a living and fire with flash guns at point blank." The accompanying photo? A chilling image of the paps blocking a princess' car. All in all, not a great stateside debut.
  • By the last 1960s, tabloids like The National Enquirer had shifted from gee-whiz tales of UFOs and baby-eating hogs to titillating tales of celebrity fashion and rumored movie star trysts. People, a spin-off of Times' "People" section, debuted in 1974 with an almost exclusive focus on celebdom. Us Magazine followed as a bi-monthly in 1977. All these incarnations of celeb-ink helped feed the growing paparazzi beast.
  • With the dawn of the Internet, scandalous photos moved online to sites such as Just Jared and Perez Hilton, where pics could be torn apart with snarky glee. TMZ, which launched in 2005, was one of the first to popularize paparazzi videos, the next frontier in trash.

Love 'em or hate 'em, there's no denying the paparazzi are here to stay. And while some scrape by on $250-a-pop pics, others have fashioned $500,000-a-year careers out of stalking celebs and sharing what they find. As it turns out, we can't get enough of the filth they dredge up.

Image: ThinkStock

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