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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Hi, I’m a self-indulgent hypocrite

There might be a little bit of hyperbole in that title, but not much.

I’ve been busier so far this year with creative/artsy stuff than I have been in my whole life up until now, and I have to say it’s been pretty cool. So get comfortable while I talk about myself and clumsily humblebrag about things I’m not very good at for a few minutes, because well…*points at title*.

Self Indulgence # 1: My filmmaking partner and I finished shooting the principal scenes for our horror short, which consisted of a late night at a cafe we were given unlimited access to after hours thanks to the place’s very cool owner. It took several hours to shoot, with me spending much of it holding the boom mic over the actors’ heads (and out of the shot!) and trying to keep things moving along so we didn’t have the cast and crew out too late. There were about 10-12 of us, and when no one is getting paid for their time you want to try and keep everybody happy.

We did a fairly good job of it, I think, until the wind and rain kicked up right before we shot our final scene, which (naturally) was outside. Watching our lead actor and actress shivering between takes and trying to keep the feeling in their hands was humbling and definitely surreal. They were out there freezing their asses off at 1:00am, doing take after take until we got it right and they were reciting lines I wrote. Me. And to top it all off, I will be (with a little help, of course) shooting a scene for the film myself, which is territory I didn’t see myself delving into so soon and that really excites the hell out of me.

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The paparazzi wouldn’t leave us alone

 

Self Indulgence #2: I always liked photography but never really thought about doing anything with it—cameras are freakin’ expensive, you know? But since meeting my new directing buddy and being back in touch with an old friend who’s also a kick ass photographer, it got me thinking about how much I always wanted to get into it. Then it hit me: I have a pretty decent quality camera in my pocket (via my cell phone) all day long, but I also have an okay point and shoot digital camera, so why wasn’t I getting out there and taking pictures?

So that’s what I did. I started going anywhere with decent scenery, trying to figure out how to take pictures that weren’t complete yawns. I also now typically spend my lunch hour (usually between 2:00 and 3:00 am) driving along the empty streets of the small town where I work looking for cool stuff to shoot. Another thing dawned on me, too (pun intended)—working the night shift has me driving home right as the sun is coming up. Now I’m always pulling off the road on my way home wherever the light looks right and snapping pictures of anything and everything that seems remotely interesting, with admittedly mixed results. (side note: I’m also now using Instagram on a regular basis, if you want to see what else I’m shooting click here)

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Is it better now…

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or now?

Self Indulgence #3: The other artsy-type thing I did recently was decide to try my very shaky hand at yet another hobby: drawing. The thing to emphasize here is that I’ve never had any kind of talent for it whatsoever. Absolutely none. People who have a knack for painting or drawing frustrate the shit out of me. It’s one of the only things I’ve ever been interested in that I could just never get the hang of (also on the list: skateboarding and getting dates). But now, armed with a sketch pad and a bunch of pencils, I aim to change that. One thing is for sure—I won’t be sharing any drawings on here (or anywhere else for that matter) for quite some time. While I’ve managed to go from completely awful to pretty terrible rather quickly, it’s still a whole boatload of suck.

Which brings us to hypocrisy. I realized what a hypocrite I was just today. I have a friend who I think could have a very successful blog, if he chose to pursue it. He expressed interest but never quite took the bait when I urged him to do it a while back, so I got an idea the other night and went ahead and registered a domain name for him here on WordPress. Now the ball is in his court, and I’m curious to see if that gives him a nudge or not.

Either way, it got me looking at my own precious blog. The last time I wrote anything here was over two months ago. What kind of arrogant fuckwhistle preaches at someone else to do something they aren’t doing themselves? So I’m resolving to try and keep this a little more up to date, a post or two a month seems reasonable. Also, I’m done trying to stick to any certain topic or theme. In other words, this is no longer a “writing” or “pop culture” blog (if it ever was one to begin with). I’m sure I’ll still touch on those things here and there, but from now on it’s more of an “I-no-longer-give-a-shit” blog. I have no idea what I’ll post about and I have no idea if any of it will be of any interest to you—I’d like to think so—but I guess if you’re willing to indulge me a little longer we’ll find out the answers to both of those questions together.