Photographer Harry Benson is known for celebrity portraiture, shooting former presidents, Muhammad Ali and the Beatles. A taut new documentary about the 87-year-old shutterbug’s long career highlights some of his most famous images, while also raising questions about photojournalism itself.
For instance: Is the camera, by its nature, intrusive? Although Benson was not primarily a paparazzo, his shots of an aging Greta Garbo — captured swimming on vacation — seem invasive. In an interview, the actress’s nephew questions how someone could make a living like that.
The Beatles and Muhammad Ali. (Harry Benson/Magnolia Pictures)
More typically, Benson earned the trust of his subjects, receiving unprecedented access to both world leaders and ordinarily reclusive celebrities. This intimacy placed him at such historical moments as the 1968 assassination of Robert F. Kennedy. Here’s another question: Does a photographer have the responsibility to come to the aid of a wounded subject (in this case, his friend)?
Less famous than his candid portraits is the work Benson made on such unglamorous assignments as a 1980 famine in Mogadishu. Benson captured powerful images of that crisis, bringing it home to people around the world. But what does it say about celebrity worship that we’re more familiar with his Frank Sinatra portfolio than this human tragedy?
As former newsman Dan Rather notes, “He who controls the images controls the public mind.” Overall, “Shoot First” is a breezy look at a professional whose work remains endearing, despite some highfalutin claims. Photography of presidents keeps their memory alive, Benson argues, saying, “We’re doing them a favor.” Apropos of that, Donald Trump also appears on camera, saying, “As long as he makes me look good, I’m happy.”