PHIL RAMEY is king of the paparazzi in Hollywood.
``The only picture that counts is the picture that sells,'' he says in his tough-guy voice. And Mr. Ramey has taken a lot of pictures that sell. His market is the celebrity magazines like Paris Match and People - ``The cover last week with O.J. Simpson in handcuffs, that's mine'' - to supermarket tabloids, like the National Enquirer and the Globe. The Globe, with a circulation of about 1 million, is the third-largest-selling of the supermarket tabs, and one of Ramey's best customers.
``Pictures can make or break a story,'' says Mary Ann Norbom, the Globe's bureau chief in Los Angeles. ``It's one thing to describe a happy bride and groom, another to see the picture. And pictures validate the story. They prove you were there.''
These are pictures of the trivial side of American culture: the weddings of Elizabeth Taylor and Madonna (Ramey covered them both); aerial shots of stars who play peekaboo with the press.
``The pictures are important, in that they sell newspapers,'' says Ramey, a man who uses a helicopter the way most photographers use a tripod. ``That's what they pay me for.'' The pay is $350 plus expenses, including the helicopter if it's needed, then a bonus for how good the picture is. That can run into five figures. He will go anywhere in the world for a shot, although the celebrity action is in Los Angeles.
Many TV and movie celebrities complain that tabloids intrude on their private lives. But for some stars, it's welcome publicity. The tabloids say that if the stars don't want publicity, it is easy to avoid. ``Someone like Robert Redford isn't in the tabloids, because he chooses to live a very private life,'' says Ms. Norbom of the Globe. ``If you wanted privacy, you could act in Minneapolis, then you could get all the privacy you wanted.''
Unlike many big-city newspapers, the tabs are flourishing. Their only enemy is the television knockoffs of the genre - so-called ``tab TV.'' Phil Ramey plays both sides of that street: When he's in the air, he often carries his Hi-8 video camera, a small, high-quality camcorder that produces images good enough for television.
Tabloids know who their readers are and what they want. Their audience, Norbom says, is women who don't have a lot of money, are maybe out of work, but who can still afford to pay a dollar to join the fantasy land of entertainers. The fame doesn't even have to be recent.
``Elizabeth Taylor hasn't made a movie in years,'' Norbom says, ``but our readers identify with her because of her personal problems.'' The editor had discussed doing two stories on Taylor for that week's paper.
AT the Santa Monica Airport, Phil Ramey and his assistant are going over maps, planning their aerial attacks on the ranches and beach houses of celebrities. Today's twin targets are Michael Jackson and a survey of TV actor Alan Thicke's ranch, near Santa Barbara, a short flight up the Pacific Coast.
Michael Jackson, a tabloid favorite, wasn't in.
Ramey now concentrates on the Thicke wedding. According to Globe reporter Chris Doherty, Thicke is on ``Hollywood's B-list.'' He was the star of the successful TV sitcom ``Growing Pains,'' which now runs only in syndication. But while Thicke may have lost some power in Hollywood, he is important to the tabloids, because tabloid readers watch a lot of TV, including reruns.
``Our readers can't afford to go to the movies a lot,'' Norbom says. ``It's expensive for them, so they watch TV. So they care more about the big TV stars than the big movie stars.''
The day of the wedding, Ramey meets his team: two assistants and two other photographers to do ground-level shots while Ramey shoots from the air. They rendezvous at noon: a BMW, a Thunderbird, and two vans in the parking lot of a fast-food restaurant at a freeway exit near the Thicke ranch.
The helicopter is waiting at the Santa Barbara airport. During the wedding ceremony, the helicopter hovers about 300 feet overhead for what seems like half an hour, Phil Ramey and his long lens hanging over the side. The noise drowns out a lot of the words and music.
There may be some truth about the relationship between celebrities and the tabloid press.
The wedding is very public, held in the front of the ranch, near the road, on an open lawn uncluttered by trees. It is easy to photograph. The private reception is held later, behind the house and outbuildings, sheltered from the road and from the air.
``Alan Thicke is probably flattered by all this attention,'' says Globe reporter Doherty, motioning to Ramey and the helicopter overhead.
Not many celebrities would agree with that thinking. Many of their publicity agents refuse to cooperate with the tabloids, and the tabloids have been the target of many lawsuits by celebrities -
few of them successful.
Phil Ramey has been in the paparazzi game since 1980. He doesn't do what the other photographers do, wait outside Hollywood restaurants for celebrities.
``Anyone can hang around waiting [for] the same picture,'' Ramey says. ``It's getting the picture that's exclusive and saleable that's the key.'' And Ramey doesn't worry about privacy: He, too, thinks of celebrities as public figures.
How does a man prepare for a life hanging from the open doors of helicopters, thinking of ways to outsmart reclusive celebrities? ``I have a degree in 18th-century English literature from an Ivy League college I don't want to name,'' says Ramey, laughing. ``It seems a long time ago.'' When he warms up, he's not as tough as he looks.
But he wasn't planning to spend this past weekend re-reading Samuel Johnson, one of his favorites.
``We're doing Whoopi Goldberg's wedding for the Globe,'' Ramey says. ``It's in a fashionable neighborhood in Los Angeles. There's no access. There ain't no way except the spy in the sky.''