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Harry Benson plans to have a chat with John Lennon about the photos he took of Mark David Chapman, Lennon’s murderer. “I think I could explain this to John when I meet him someday, you know, that I was just doing my job,” the Scottish photographer says in Harry Benson: Shoot First, Justin Bare and Matthew Miele’s documentary about the cameraman who rose to fame when he was assigned to cover The Beatles on their 1964 American tour.
Benson expects to have a sit-down with Robert F. Kennedy, too, for photographing the senator as he lay dying in 1968, along with capturing Ethel Kennedy with her hand partially obscuring a shot. Though clearly a religious man—or, at least, a believer in the afterlife—Benson has been criticized if not vilified for his documentation of horrible moments, which in addition to these assassinations include a KKK rally during the civil rights movement.
“Let me feel tomorrow, not today,” Benson says of his career-induced compartmentalization in Shoot First. “Just doing my/his job” is a frequent refrain from Benson and other commentators in the film, whose professions span as widely as the photographer’s subjects: Carl Bernstein, Alec Baldwin, James L. Brooks, Piers Morgan (remember him?), President-elect Donald Trump (still in denial?), among others.
His daughters say that their still-active, 87-year-old father’s belief was that “work always came first,” claiming that they can tell he’s only half-present even at family gatherings. Based on all the remarkable moments he’s captured—The Beatles’ pillow fight, a naked O.J. Simpson, a young Hillary and Bill Clinton nearly kissing, Greta Garbo swimming in the sea alone, the state in which she famously said she wanted to be let—some people deem him “lucky” to have been present at those times. But his son-in-law, Tucker, notes, “The harder you work, the luckier you get.” (Some of this luck, however, involved Benson tricking his competition in various ways to ensure that he’d get an exclusive shot.)
Benson has his detractors, including Garbo’s nephew, who regards the photos he took of his aunt “a gross invasion of privacy”—even though the tasteful, haunting images seem quaint compared to the privacy invasions that even the barely famous endure today. The nephew calls Benson’s captures “the most paparazziest thing” he’s done and scornfully adds that he would never want to make his living that way. The directors then oddly pull the camera back to reveal more of their subject’s normal apartment while dopey music plays, apparently indicating that they don’t think highly of the man.
If Shoot First has any flaw, it’s that it’s a tease. You want to pause the film as Bare and Miele flash through Benson’s striking portfolio, which encompasses content from emaciated children in a Somalian refugee camp to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball to Michael Jackson, whom Benson describes as having seemed “quite normal.” The photographer is charming, but his anecdotes don’t come across as strongly as his defensiveness about his career. He accuses his critics within his field of not having “the guts” to take the difficult shots and dismisses their cry about ethics as merely an excuse. “I photograph what I see, and what I see should inform,” he says.
Whether or not you agree, you can’t help but like the guy, who’s at once full of braggadocio and self-deprecation. At the end of the documentary, one of the directors asks Benson if he feels legendary. “Of course not,” he says with a laugh. “Because I know that inside, I’m a piece of….” Before he finishes that sentence, the credits roll.
Harry Benson: Shoot First opens today at Landmark’s West End Cinema