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The Price of Shooting Stars

It's an unseasonably warm winter afternoon in West Hollywood and a hulking '09 Range Rover snakes through traffic on Melrose. It's pristine, with white paint and thousand-dollar rims, and its two-way radio crackles above the babble of a KROQ announcer. Behind the wheel is a bleary-eyed Englishman, his cockney accent barking details of Christina Aguilera's whereabouts on a nearby film set. He is a celebrity photographer, or, for all intents and purposes, paparazzi.

Mirrored aviator sunglasses hide the deep black bags under his eyes. He's on his fourth Red Bull and hasn't slept for two days. He had been outside the Beckhams' residence in Bel Air, along with several other photographers acting on a tip that Victoria Beckham had yet another boob job. Sadly, no pics eventuated, despite the time involved.

His story is familiar — he's trying to earn a living in a challenging economy, hoping to meet his mortgage and support his wife and two kids. Many people resent him, though. He's often perceived as harassing the icons Angelenos have come to love or hate.

You've heard it before. A tortured celebrity complains of persecution at the hands of the paparazzi, those marauding parasites causing chaos on the streets as they brazenly profit from sales of their candid images.

For photos that once promised tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars, they ran lights and drove at breakneck speed, tailgated celebrities, hired helicopters for aerials, or boats for beach shots, and they flew to exotic resorts and rented neighboring hotel rooms.

That behavior led to a much-hyped change in state law this year that makes invasion of privacy by paparazzi (or paps, as they are known in the biz) punishable by a civil fine of up to $50,000. The truth is, however, the recession and a glut of photographers had already done in the outsize behavior.

Pic agencies and magazines say images that once sold for $1,500 (which equated to a half- or quarter-page in a magazine) now sell for as little as $150. So without the incentive, photo agencies aren't investing big to obtain shots, magazines are reusing old pics, and earnings are generally way down.

The photographer driving the Range Rover was born in the U.K. and has lived in L.A. for 10 years. Keen to escape the stigma of being known as a pap, he asks not to be identified in this story. A year ago he had his own pic agency and commanded a six-figure salary. Now he's working as a freelance photographer again.

"I got into this for the money, though the gold rush is over," he says. "The volume of photographers, the Internet and the recession has brought the asking price of photographs down and really makes it far less lucrative."

In a trademark smack of Hollywood irony, the first week of January saw stories about new paparazzi laws reverberate nationally. These new laws, championed by celebrity Jennifer Aniston, were hailed for "restricting the paparazzi in 2010 and beyond."

Los Angeles Democrat Karen Bass, speaker of the California Assembly, said Aniston's activism was instrumental in the creation of the new laws after images of the former Friend sunbathing topless in her backyard emerged in 2006. "There have to be some boundaries," Aniston said. "When you have children in the car and the photographers are rushing you, it's just absolutely out of control.

"It's become a public-safety issue. Somebody's going to die if we don't do something."

The paps, however, don't see the laws changing their behavior, because the marketplace already has. Paps are so plentiful these days that photos of celebrities are easy for the media to acquire, and for much less money.

"Nowadays most shooting is done in the street," says Regis Navarre, head of one of L.A.'s biggest photo agencies, X17. "With companies such as Time Warner–financed TMZ employing hundreds of people to follow celebs everywhere, there are fewer and fewer exclusives. The era of covert photography has gone."

But just in case you're wondering, the paps see the new laws as largely ineffective.

"Legally these laws don't change anything," Navarre says. "Ultimately these are simply amendments to laws originally passed in 2000. The amended laws are simply scare tactics, purely a silent threat. On what grounds can you sue someone for simply taking a photograph? Maybe if you trespass on their property, but what will determine whether a celebrity can in fact sue will be hard to prove."

U.K. photographer Jeff Rainey runs a news agency catering for that country's outlets and has shot many celebs in L.A. in his six years here.

"There is a point that some photographers need to be controlled, but there's a fine line between what is newsworthy and what isn't. It would be hard to prove what is in breach of these new laws and it would take forever to get through courts," he says 

Back in the Range Rover, the photographer weary from spending days outside the Beckham property says of the business of celebrity photography: "Things really aren't any more lawless than they once were; in fact, it's probably the reverse."