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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.