A Night on the Town With Paparazzi : Anything Can Develop When They’re Out Shooting Stars

Times Staff Writer

Vinnie Zuffante’s black eye has healed, but the details of how he got it remain fresh in the photographer’s mind.

He claims to have gotten the shiner during a scuffle with an actor who accidentally popped him while tangling with two other photographers.

It was the actor’s wife who asked him to intervene, said Zuffante, recalling the recent incident.


“She comes running over and grabs my jacket and says, ‘Stop them! Stop them from fighting!’ ” Zuffante said. “So I put my camera down and try to break it up, and then he just popped me in the face. Next time I see him I’m not going to say anything, I’m just going to see what he says. I see them all over, but I don’t always take their picture.”

Fact of Life for Famous

Zuffante, 30, is one of a breed of photographers who are commonly labeled paparazzi for their devotion to snapping pictures of celebrities. Their turf is anywhere a famous face can be found: parties, premieres, restaurants, doorways--even the city streets.

In Los Angeles, photographers like Zuffante are a fact of life, constantly chronicling the activities of television, music and movie stars that become fodder for thousands of celebrity-oriented magazines and newspapers around the world. It’s not an easy life: braving the cold, waiting outside for hours to snap a picture, getting smacked around by people who don’t understand you have a job to do, say the photographers.

And Friday night was no exception.

At 6, Walter McBride, Barry Talesnick and Marc Courtland were at the Century Plaza hotel waiting to get shots of “Falcon Crest” star Jane Wyman at an Arthritis Foundation awards dinner. McBride, 26, and Talesnick, 28, are based in New York where they work for the Retna photo syndicate; Courtland, 27, from Los Angeles, said he sometimes shoots for the syndicate as well as the Hollywood Reporter.

Greetings From Wyman

An hour later, the three were ushered into a small room for a brief photo session. Wyman treated them like foreign diplomats, asking their names and shaking their hands. “Take all the pictures you want,” she said, posing with the dinner’s honorees.

“Let them do one more and that’s it,” snapped a tuxedo-clad man. But Wyman was in no hurry, and did not protest when they joined her at a small table to chat.


“They’re adorable,” she said. “I don’t like it when (photographers) are aggressive. Then they lose me.”

Publicist Chris Christman wasn’t as affable. “We tried to discourage them from coming,” she said. “We figured they weren’t really interested in our function. We don’t feel they serve our purpose.”

By 7:30, McBride, Talesnick and Courtland were off to shoot a Thalians benefit. Meanwhile, comedian Jackie Mason was drawing celebs to his one-man show at the Canon Theatre in Beverly Hills. As Jane Fonda, Cary Grant, Jimmy Stewart and other luminaries emerged from their limos, a handful of photographers were there to capture the moment.

“This is an OK event,” said Ralph Dominguez, a 12-year veteran of this beat.

As he was shooting Hope Lange, a very pregnant Bette Midler and husband Martin von Haselberg sneaked by, catching the photographers off guard.

“Now we have to come back!” Zuffante yelled after them, annoyed that he’d have to return later to photograph Midler.

“Normally that should not happen,” said Dominguez. “Everyone was talking. We should have spotted her a mile away.”


When the flow of stars ceased, the photographers split up and began their quest for more familiar faces. Typically, many head for celebrity hangouts like Spago, Le Dome and Nicky Blair’s, using their contacts with parking valets and maitre d’s to find out who’s inside the restaurants and who’s expected.

Often they have to share precious sidewalk space with autograph seekers. Some photographers don’t mind the fans; others feel they are the bane of their existence, often getting in the way of important shots.

The Scene at Spago

By 8:45, Zuffante was waiting outside Spago where the air was heavy with the smell of garlic. So far he had taken a picture of “One Life to Live” star Andrea Evans. “I’ve been doing this since I was 14,” said Zuffante, who wore a white leather jacket, a belt buckle that said “VINCE” and a three-day beard.

Zuffante said he has a lawsuit pending against one of Prince’s bodyguards, who the photographer claims took a couple of swings at him outside the local nightclub Carlos ‘n Charlie’s. “That was my right eye,” he noted.

The occasional scrapes don’t discourage him. “I get to travel a lot: New York, Chicago, London,” he said with a thick Brooklyn accent. “In New York everyone knows me. I don’t mind standing outside. It doesn’t bother me.”

But it’s not the most lucrative business, said Zuffante who sells his photos to Star File, a New York-based company that then tries to syndicate them in foreign and domestic markets. Some photographers work the same way, letting syndicates like Gamma-Liaison Agency take roughly half the profits, and others are salaried employees of other photographers. Still others act as their own agents, selling their photos directly. Most shoot on speculation.


How much a photo sells for depends on who’s in it and how good it is. An exclusive shot of a marketable celeb can bring in thousands of dollars; a less desirable one, maybe $25.

“You spend what you make,” said Zuffante. “You usually end up buying your own film and paying for your own processing. When I travel I pay my way.”

Dress for the Camera

Free-lance photographer Brad Elterman, who has written a how-to book, “Shoot the Stars: How to Become a Celebrity Photographer,” said the tabloids have been seeking full-length fashion shots lately. If a starlet wants to get into one of these papers, Elterman advises dressing for excess in an eye-catching gown. “That can be more important than if they’re with a new date,” he said.

So if entertainers Audrey and Judy Landers showed up at an event wearing slinky gowns, and actor Dustin Hoffman showed up in jeans, who would win the popularity contest?

“The Landers sisters,” said Elterman. “Even if it was one of them standing alone, or maybe if she was coming out of a restaurant carrying a doggie bag. You try to get celebrities to mug for the camera. That’s what’s going to sell. Most of them are pretty cordial. In order to get into the paper, they know they have to do something strange.”

The current list of hot stars includes Don Johnson, Bruce Willis, Cybill Shepherd, Priscilla Presley or anyone on “Dallas” or “Dynasty.” Actor Sean Penn and rocker Madonna are still considered the king and queen of the photo set even though Penn has had numerous run-ins with celebrity photographers. Dominguez says Penn is “a rebel without a cause. He’s living in the past. He seems to be mad at everyone.”


After Spago, it was back to the Canon Theatre, where at 9:45 a select group of guests was walking from the theater to a reception at the Bistro Garden across the street. The photographers, claiming publicists had told them to be back by 10, missed most of the stars again, including Fonda and Midler.

Usually publicists decide which photographers are allowed inside a party. Some are chosen to enter because they are appropriately dressed.

But when all photographers are cordoned off outside an event, it can create some fierce jockeying for positions, especially if TV cameras are present. A paparazzo with an assignment has a better chance of getting inside than one who’s uncommissioned, but not always. Assignments for Time, Newsweek and People outrank the National Enquirer and the Star in the minds of some publicists.

Being Recognized

If a photographer stays in the business long enough celebrities come to recognize him, and if he’s on their good side they’ll often stand and pose, or come over to talk. After all, they realize the pictures help their careers, too.

Not all celebrity photographers mind being labeled paparazzi, defined in the dictionary as “photographers, especially free-lance ones, who take candid shots of celebrities for newspapers or magazines.” Its roots are in two French words; paperassier , meaning “a scribbler, rummager in old papers,” and paperasse , meaning “old paper, waste paper.”

It depends on how the word is used, the photographers say. “It doesn’t bother me,” Zuffante said. “That’s what I am. But it depends on how someone phrases it.”

Dominguez agreed. “To be honest, words do not bother me. I do prefer photographer, or celebrity photographer. When someone says, ‘Oh, there goes a paparazzo ,’ ” he said, waving his arm and rolling his eyes, “It’s the way they say it I don’t like.”


Sniffed another photographer: “I am not a photographer, I am a photo journalist .”

The evening hadn’t been a total loss, but it hadn’t been a great success, either.

“You can say Friday night is a slow night, but sometimes Friday is busy and sometimes Wednesday is busy,” said Dominguez. “You don’t know. Nothing in this business is guaranteed.”