Harry Benson: Shoot First is entertaining and anecdotal, filled with famous faces and equally famous photos. It would be tempting to call it superficial at first…but also deals with the role of the photographer, as Benson sees it. He is an eyewitness. He’s not there to judge or censor the reality unfolding right in front of his lens, whether it’s a bloody Robert Kennedy lying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel kitchen (with his wife holding a hand up to block the camera) or a little boy dropping his pants to take an impromptu swim in a Glasgow public fountain.
One after another, celebrities of all stripes (from Ralph Lauren to Sharon Stone to Donald Trump) tell us that Harry is a world-class charmer: that’s how he got—and still gets—famous people to do unexpected things. They trust him. He’s the man Elizabeth Taylor invited into her hospital room after she’d had her head shaved for a life-threatening operation. Michael Jackson didn’t hesitate in allowing Harry shoot him in his bedroom with young children at his side. It’s not Harry’s place to judge.
It turns out that the octogenarian is a plain-spoken bloke, unpretentious and foul-mouthed, as comfortable walking in his hometown with a childhood pal as he is photographing presidents and movie stars. He also learned to be competitive early on, beating rivals to a good story and using devious means to get exclusives that had their tongues wagging.
It isn’t just access to celebrities that makes Benson’s pictures stand out: he has a trained eye and a finely-honed instinct for what makes a great set-up that will lead to a memorable shot. Filmmakers Justin Bare and Matthew Miele capture all of this and more in their lively, enjoyable documentary.