Movie Review: Harry Benson—Shoot First [2016]

There’s a chance you may have never heard of photographer Harry Benson, and if it were up to him, he probably wouldn’t have it any other way. But if you do a quick Google search of the man, you’d probably recognize many of his photos.

Harry Benson is responsible for some of the most iconic images of the last half of the twentieth century, perhaps most notably for a photo of The Beatles in a rambunctious pillow fight the night they found out I Want to Hold Your Hand hit number one in the US. That assignment to shoot the young band in Paris (which he hadn’t originally wanted) led to not only a decades-long friendship with The Fab Four, but to a prominent career—as a portrait photographer of celebrities, photographing every living president from Eisenhower to Obama (as well as a pre-presidential run Donald Trump), and award-winning photojournalist. The 2016 documentary Harry Benson—Shoot First takes a look back at the legendary Scot’s career and the stories behind some of his most famous images.

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Beatles, Paris 1964

To say Benson’s career has been remarkable is an understatement. At times it seems the man has had an almost Forrest Gump-like knack for being in the right place at the right time, capturing one historic moment after another (a photo of Robert Kennedy’s wife in the moments after his assassination is another of his most iconic photos; famous photos of the reclusive Greta Garbo and a couple passionately kissing at a bar relied almost entirely on luck). But what a family member states, and what becomes more clear as the film goes on, is that Harry Benson worked harder than most of his peers, and many of his iconic shots exist only because he made them happen. He had to do whatever it took to get the confidence of whoever it was he wanted to shoot, and once he got in the room with them he had to make them comfortable enough to let their guard down so he could capture them as they really were, not the posed, stiff photos many studio photographers got (Benson famously hates studio photography).

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Bobby Fischer, Iceland 1972

He has a knack for making people feel at ease, evidenced by the fact he has photographed some of the most private people in the world at some of their most private moments: Quarterback Joe Namath at home in his legendary bachelor pad; Chess champion Bobby Fischer nude in the shower; Elizabeth Taylor in her hospital bed before and after surgery to remove a brain tumor; Michael Jackson in his Neverland Ranch bedroom; and possibly my favorite of all his photos, a backstage shot of country legend Dolly Parton in silhouette, “putting on her face.”

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Dolly Parton, Nashville 1977

Shoot First is not a hard-hitting, warts-and-all documentary—rather, it’s pretty adoring of its subject. But it’s not hard to realize he’s earned the admiration he’s received over the years. The film takes us back to Harry’s roots as a tabloid photographer on Fleet Street in London (where Benson says he got the ability to snap photos quickly and find perspectives other photogs might miss), as well as a look at the gut-wrenching work he did in Somali refugee camps—he has always maintained that he is, first and foremost, a photojournalist—reminding us that hard work paid off for him, and, when looking at his portfolio, he truly has an eye for outstanding photos.

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Dr. Milton Avery with refugee family, Somalia 1981

The film doesn’t touch on any technical aspects of his work—the type of camera Harry uses or any settings he used for a given photo are barely mentioned, if at all—and he would probably tell you that’s because that stuff largely doesn’t matter. What matters most is being ready and anticipating the shot before it presents itself. And to that end, Harry Benson is a master. He’s also extremely affable and self-deprecating to boot, which makes listening to him tell the stories behind his photos a joy.

If you have even a passing interest in photography, pop culture, or landmark moments of the 20th century, there’s a good chance you’ll like this film. You can stream Shoot First on Netflix, or check out some of his iconic images here and here.

 

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How Exactly Does One Become a Buff?

It’s weird. People who are into music are called audiophiles, people call themselves a geek or a nerd about whatever subject they’re into, but it seems like I only ever hear two types of people call themselves ‘buffs’: film buffs and history buffs.

I’ve been a self-proclaimed film buff for years—I know there are tons of people who know way more about movies than I ever will, but to the average Joe I’m pretty knowledgeable. History, on the other hand, well…in school, history was up there with math as classes I’d sooner get a root canal than attend. Part of it might be because my teachers always seemed to make it so dry and uninteresting (what was up with that, Mr. Curi?). It wasn’t until college that I took a history class that was somewhat interesting, and it only covered up to the revolutionary war, but it did stoke my curiosity a little. So this past weekend when I was checking TripAdvisor for things to do for a trip to Kansas City with my significant other, I was interested when the first thing that popped up was the National World War I Museum and Memorial.

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What I knew about WWI could fit on the inside of a matchbook, so everything I saw in the museum fascinated me. Everyone has at least a cursory knowledge of WWII, but The Great War seems to be somewhat overlooked in school.

The first thing I noticed upon entering the museum was the abundance of poppies—pictures of poppies on the walls, poppies on plates and keychains, on mugs in the gift shop, and this sight under your feet as you make your way from the lobby to the museum itself:

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It looked odd, seeing all the flowers with no grass or anything green around them, and although it’s hard to tell in the picture, there are a couple of wooden planks in the middle of it all. What did it all mean? We wouldn’t find out until the end of our visit.

We were guided to a cozy auditorium showing a short film that tried to explain as quickly and clearly as it could what led up to the war, namely the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria. In the virtual blink of an eye following the assassination, multiple countries had declared war on each other and all hell broke loose.

The museum had more content than you could shake a stick at: Uniforms of the soldiers and nurses; gas masks, firearms and artillery; life-sized recreations of the trenches on the battlefields and the enormous craters left by the rounds fired from a tank; and my personal favorite, propaganda posters.

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There were dozens upon dozens of posters on display, and a really cool interactive feature that let you create your own mashup poster from the ones provided. There were also some newspapers from the time and various quotes from historic figures regarding the war.

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And the poppies?

Unhappy with the lack of any real explanation, we wandered to the information desk where an elderly volunteer was more than happy to explain it to us. As it turns out, under the right conditions poppies can grow wild (being as much like a weed as they are a flower), and the atrocities of war gave them near perfect conditions to flourish: the heavy foot traffic and vehicle wear aerated the soil, the decomposing bodies fertilized it, and a chemical from the artillery shells killed off any pests that would eat or damage the flowers.

The result was that the battlefields that had been stripped barren of any sign of life (and instead were full of death and decay) soon were brimming with poppies. Soon after the war it became a symbol of remembrance not only for the Americans but for all the soldiers who died in the war worldwide. As for the scene under our feet when we entered? Each poppy below us represented 1,000 military lives lost in the war, 9 million in total.

We spent about two and a half hours at the museum, but could’ve easily spent twice that long. Your ticket is actually good for two days (although we had just one day to spend), which makes it that much more of a value. Being there over Veteran’s Day weekend meant that a) tickets were half price, and b) it was exceptionally crowded. I look forward to going back to the museum at a more relaxed pace to try and take it all in. If you’re ever in Kansas City, I highly recommend it.

I almost forgot to mention how cool the gift shop was! They had all sorts of things, from t-shirts to mugs to dishes to collectible replica helmets. I was absolutely tickled to find stoneware coasters with some of my favorite propaganda posters on them, and this mug which delighted my girlfriend to no end:

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Considering I was already gaining an interest in war and general history, I may soon be adding history buff to my self-proclaimed film buff status, which is cool because I know damn well those are the only kinds of buff I’ll ever be.