'Harry Benson: Shoot First' is terrific portrait of witness to history

Katie Walsh
Tribune News Service (TNS)
  • The documentary shows the work of photographer Harry Benson.
  • 3 1/2 stars out of 4

The charming documentary "Harry Benson: Shoot First" introduces us to its subject — the photographer Harry Benson — first through his work, and then winds its way back to the beginning. It's a structure that echoes Harry's personal ethos: The work comes first. It's through Harry's photos, and through his friendships and interactions with his subjects, that you get to know the man, a photographer who has captured and made history through his lens.
His most memorable photos span the range of celebrity fare, party and paparazzi photos, editorial fashion and lifestyle spreads, to stark political photojournalism of presidents, politicians, activists, the civil rights movement and international crises. His pictures of Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball, or the Beatles and Muhammad Ali, are as indelible as the ones he took of Robert F. Kennedy dying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel or of a Somalian refugee camp.
Through rapid-fire montages, directors Justin Bare and Matthew Miele show off many of Harry's most iconic photographs, so fast that you're tempted to slow down the film to study the details of the composition. The film does that for us with a few of his most iconic snaps — circling the images on a cinematic contact sheet with a grease pencil and diving in for a closer look.
When you measure the length and breadth of his career, it's almost breathtaking to think about just how intimately Benson was connected to the major moments of the 20th century and beyond. There he is, landing in New York with the Beatles as they bring Beatlemania to the U.S; and there he is shooting photos of John Lennon's assassin, Mark David Chapman. He's tear-gassed at a civil rights protest in Mississippi, and mere blocks away from Martin Luther King Jr.'s hotel when he's assassinated. It might be luck, but it's more likely hard work and determination that puts him in the right place at the right time.
The film captures not only Benson's boldness and bravery in pursuing controversial subjects but also his disarming personality and his ability to achieve intimacy with his subjects, to make them feel safe and taken care of on camera (the only exception: a swimming Greta Garbo, who would have preferred not to be photographed in her later age). With deeply private celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Bobby Fischer, Harry is able to put them at ease and capture something singularly intimate and internal about them in his photos.
His genius also lies in his lightning quick reflexes and whimsical eye, with which he creates photographs that feel as if they're in motion. Even traditional fashion or celebrity shoots have a sense of energy not often seen in other photographers' work. Harry's photographs leap off the page, the subjects simultaneously enormously alive and frozen in time. The documentary captures the energy and zest that Harry poured into each one.
After a rollicking ride through his wild career, we finally visit the small Scottish town from which he hails, to meet his old friends and see his early work. That backstory is ultimately all the sweeter for having gotten to know the man first and spent some time with his work, the scope of which encompasses nearly all of 20th-century history. Not bad for a small-town lad.

3.5 out of 4 stars
Cast: Harry Benson, Alec Baldwin, Dan Rather, Sharon Stone, James L. Brooks, Henry Kissinger
Directed by: Justin Bare and Matthew Miele
Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes
No MPAA Rating