Harry Benson is definitely not a household name, but the longtime photographer has captured images that are iconic throughout various forms of 20th Century life. When the Beatles came to America, Benson was there with his camera. When Robert Kennedy was shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Benson was there with his camera. The professional life of Harry Benson is now the subject of the new documentary from directors Justin Bare and Matthew Miele, Harry Benson: Shoot First. For much of its running time, Harry Benson: Shoot First is rather rote biographical documentary, examining the life and work of its subject through the testimony of various talking heads and celebrities. However, Harry Benson: Shoot First is really at its best when it questions the moral aspects of its subject’s work, wondering if Benson prioritizes his work at the expense of the humanity of others.
Getting his start on Fleet Street in London, Harry Benson quickly worked his way up the ranks of photo journalists in trying to capture the story through his lens by any means necessary. Harry Benson wasn’t just limited to any one form of photography, capturing moments ranging from war torn regions to celebrity profiles. His reputation has earned him the trust of various celebrities and politicians over the years, including up close and personal photo session with the likes of Muhammed Ali, Robert Kennedy, and Michael Jackson. Sometimes his quests for an exclusive image have him dabbling in morally questionable waters, such as camping out to get a picture of the reclusive Greta Garbo in her older age. Whatever you think of Harry Benson one thing is certain – his expansive portfolio of iconic images speaks for themselves.
Much of Harry Benson: Shoot First is simply biographical information provided by Benson and his family members or talking heads and celebrities praising the work of the photographer. Some of the celebrities that appear in the documentary include Alec Baldwin, James L. Brooks, Bryant Gumbel, and (Sigh) Donald Trump. Benson obviously has an eye behind the camera and many of the images shown and discussed are memorable, especially one of Jack Nicholson with a spattering of white power around one of his nostrils. And the photographer isn’t shy about recounting his stories of photographing celebrities and politicians over the years, and is especially candid about the times he shot Michael Jackson. All of these aspects to the film are rather generic. The film is presented in a flashy manner with nice production values, but most of it is rather boilerplate material for a documentary.
Where the film really picks up and finds its most engaging material is through the most controversial pictures of Harry Benson’s career. When Robert Kennedy was shot, Benson stood over the politicians’ bleeding body capturing the images. Interview subjects question whether or not Benson could’ve helped the wounded Kennedy as he lay dying, though Benson is quick to say that he was there to do his job. The other image that garners a lot of conversation about the morality of Benson’s work is the photographs of the reclusive Garbo. It questions whether or not Benson abandoned the prestige he accumulated over the years on an act that is no different than that of the average paparazzi, though again Benson denies this charge. These moments are few and far between in Bare and Miele’s film despite being the most fascinating aspect to Benson’s career.
Harry Benson: Shoot First is a mostly interesting documentary about a man who captured iconic images of celebrities and politicians for the past 50-plus years. It is simply a biographical documentary that plays it safe more often than not. Sadly, Harry Benson: Shoot First is at its best when it isn’t playing it safe and questioning whether or not its subject was right in putting the quest for the great picture before everything else. If only Bare and Miele were as willing to take risks as Harry Benson.
Harry Benson: Shoot First
Exploring the life and career of famed photographer Harry Benson, Harry Benson: Shoot First is mostly by the number but excels when it examines the moral questions of prioritizing an iconic image above all else.