With the directors so seduced by Benson, there’s little time for any true deeper examination of the photographer.
Celebrity photography stops people in their tracks. Look at the work of legendary photographer Richard Avedon or Andy Warhol’s painting; both characters captured fleeting moments of vulnerability in their subjects that entrance audiences, playing on the glamour and iconography, but also the immortality of those photographed. The same can be said of the work by Harry Benson, the subject of Justin Bare and Matthew Miele’s documentary, Harry Benson: Shoot First. A raucous ode to the shutterbug raconteur embraces the glamour of his lifestyle, while keeping the man himself at arm’s length.
A single image of the Beatles jumping on a bed propels photographer Harry Benson into becoming the premier photog for all number of celebrities, both large and small. But are Benson’s methods over the top?
Strip away the standard trappings of the documentary – the talking heads praising Benson’s skills, the trek back to his familial home – and what endures is the work. Like a painter whose canvases hang in immense galleries, it’s understandable why Benson’s work is bought by celebrities like Alec Baldwin. The man has captured some of the world’s biggest celebrities during their most personal moments: the notoriously isolated Greta Garbo swimming, the Beatles just acting like normal boys. This vulnerability works literally, as well. He walked in on members of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s entourage holding a jar of his blood, and also took photos of a dying Robert F. Kennedy immediately after being gunned down in the Ambassador Hotel.
It is these photos that lend fuel to the fire of Benson’s critics who call him a paparazzo. Captured in the moment is a bereaved Ethel Kennedy trying to shield her dead husband from Benson’s lens. Is Benson ethically allowed to take the pictures he does? As he says, it’s all about rendering these moments for the annals of history. To him, this is unvarnished evidence of the horrors of reality and a man like Bobby Kennedy “would understand.” Ethics are brought up, but Benson, overall, cares little about it. Directors Bare and Miele do their best to balance Benson’s own words with those of his critics. A relative of Greta Garbo’s barely contains his contempt for Benson’s invasion of privacy.
Bare and Miele are enchanted by the artist’s glamorous lifestyle, and they want the audience to be as well. For most of the runtime, this works to great effect. The images are so spellbinding and evocative, and Benson’s own brash personality gives audiences an intimate “I’m with the band” feel. Colorful characters like André Leon Talley, the aforementioned Baldwin, and Sharon Stone give off an air of enchantment and old-school Hollywood that dazzles the viewer in spite of the film’s own flaws.
With the directors so seduced by Benson, there’s little time for any true deeper examination of the photographer. He’s criticized by others, but you can almost hear the crew laughing at everything Benson says. With so many divergences, it’s as if the inmate, Benson, is running the asylum (why spend so much time on whether Benson captured cocaine in Jack Nicholson’s nose hairs?). This unclear focus makes the third act shift towards looking at Benson’s family life seem rushed and last-minute.
Harry Benson: Shoot First does uncover the wonders of a remarkable man’s photography. After watching this you’ll want to look at every photo he ever took. But once the pictures are developed, it’s hard to find any significant reason, past the shiny world of glamour, to stick around.