You may not know who Harry Benson is, but you certainly know his photos. How about the one where Muhammad Ali is stunt punching all four Beatles? Or the locker room shot of O.J. Simpson? How about the time Nixon resigned and threw up the peace signs as he boarded his getaway helicopter? Those indelible images are all the handiwork of Harry Benson, a hard-working photographer who always managed to be in the right place at the right time.
But as the new documentary, Harry Benson: Shoot First, shows that trick of being in the right place at the right time is the product of being a workaholic who wants to be at all places at all times. Benson’s camera captured the iconic moments and people of the 20th and 21st centuries because Benson is one of the most sought-after photographers around. And because Benson rarely turns down work, even at the sacrifice of family.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1929, Benson got his start on Fleet Street, Britain’s headquarters for cutthroat, no-holds-barred journalism. Benson had to work extra hard to stand out from the crowd, and stand out he did. It didn’t take long for Benson to find himself on assignment for Life, Vanity Fair, Time, The New Yorker, and a hundred other publications. At one point in the documentary, directors Justin Bare and Matthew Miele photograph a pile of magazine covers, all shot by Benson, enough to fill an office. What must his archives look like?
Shoot First benefits greatly from these photos. From Beatles to presidents, cheesecake to assignations, inaugurations, and resignations, Benson captured it all. The rest of the doc is the standard operating practice of talking head: A couple of Kennedys, Donald Trump, Alec Baldwin, James L. Brooks, Bryant Gumbel, Carl Bernstein, and the like talk about how great it is to work with Benson.
A little time is spent on the photos Benson captured during the assignation of Robert F. Kennedy and the ethical implications of these images. Benson navigates these waters with a lifetime of professional grace, but when the implications of paparazzi are tossed at him for a photograph of reclusive Greta Garbo, Benson swats it down with a dull thud. There is real power in photography, and part of that power comes from the privilege of investigation. Without that privilege, images can take on a dubious nature.
But Harry Benson: Shoot First is not here to lambaste Benson or his field. This is documentary as tribute, and though it lacks the inventiveness and acuity of a Benson photograph, Shoot First does have a strong enough subject in its frame to make it worthwhile. Benson is one of the few artists who is about as interesting as his work, and Shoot First is the ideal primer for anyone who needs to familiarize themselves with both.
Harry Benson: Shoot First (2016)
Written and Directed by Justin Bare & Matthew Miele
Produced by Justin Bare, Heather Silverman
Starring: Harry Benson
Magnolia Pictures, Unrated, Running time 87 minutes, Opens December 14, 2016