Harry Benson might not be a name you're familiar with, but odds are you've seen his photographs. The man is about as prolific as can be imagined; he's taken iconic photos of every pop culture figure from The Beatles to the Clintons, Queen Elizabeth to Muhammad Ali. In the upcoming documentary Harry Benson: Shoot First, directors Justin Bare and Matthew Miele take on the monumental task of showcasing the legendary career of a man who is still actively working today at age 86.
Shoot First takes a clever, roaming approach to what could have been a four hour slog of chronological history, instead moving back and forth through time to take peeks at the backstories and significance of many of Benson's celebrated photographs. It does so with a carefree tone that keeps things moving lightly throughout, but underneath is an masterfully crafted narrative. The film runs the gambit from the utter silliness of The Beatles having a pillow fight in a hotel room to the ethical dilemma of photographing a just-shot Robert F. Kennedy, and it does so with a sort of expertly swung pendulum, always adjusting the tone at just the moment that you feel you've seen the full breadth of Benson's craft.
The film smartly uses a contact sheet (like a test sheet of photos straight from the negatives) as the narrative map that guides the story along, nudged forward by an impressive array of interviews from the likes of James L. Brooks, Dan Rather, Sharon Stone, Alec Baldwin, and even Donald Trump. The admiration that most of these contributors exude for Benson and their appreciation for the details of the photograph being examined create a real sense of awe for the man's incredible talent.
However, Benson's own interviews for the film balance all this praise out with a healthy dose of self-depreciating humor. The key to Shoot First working as well as it does is Benson's personality; he is charming, funny, and humble even as he describes the often crazy lengths he went to to capture the right moment. The stories he and others share about the stories behind iconic photos are often hilarious and quite memorable; for example, how he convinced Roman Polanski to get buried up to his neck in sand, then acted as if he couldn't dig him up as the tide was coming in to overtake him.
Harry Benson: Shoot First is the kind of documentary that you happen to catch a glimpse of and can't bring yourself to flip over to something else. It is eminently compelling, and is exciting to see just what wonderful image that you've seen and had no idea was one of Benson's is up next. It is fantastically edited, and knows exactly how to show a still image and it's tiny details without the film becoming a slideshow, and provides great insights into both the art of photojournalism and the moments into which so many iconic movie and TV personalities, sports figures, musicians, and politicians let Benson into their private worlds. This is a must see!