‘Harry Benson: Shoot First’ Celebrates the Art and Ethos of a Great Photographer


Try to watch Matthew Miele and Justin Bare’s new documentary, Harry Benson: Shoot First, as Benson would want you to: with no commentary, consideration, or delay. It’s the same risky, presumptuous way he takes his photos.

When Robert Kennedy was shot, Benson ran into the fray and snapped a photo of the warm corpse on the asphalt, surrounded by concerned men unable to help; Benson didn’t help either. “Shoot first” is his ethos, but not his ethic; in fact, he states several times that good ethics make bad photographers. Think too hard about whether it’s okay to take that photo, and you’ll miss the moment.

Benson is best known for his intimate portraits of the Beatles, and the film opens with images of the four from Liverpool gasping and pop-eyed, flinging pillows and falling onto a hotel mattress. It’s a soft invitation into Benson’s rare world, which offers unprecedented access to eye contact with the reclusive and the bedrooms of the elite. Here’s Michael Jackson with a plastic Boy Scout; Hillary and Bill almost kissing; Alec Baldwin baring his rug of a chest. More compelling and less well known are Benson’s images from the Civil Rights era, photographed at Klan gatherings and Martin Luther King’s funeral.

The images are augmented by commentary from Benson, his subjects, and his critics, who include his own family. In his singular dedication to brilliant work, Benson was rarely home, even on holidays, but he expresses scorn for people more concerned with others’ feelings than their images. It’s a reminder: Not only cameras but also guns can shoot. An image, like a bullet, can be violent; it can change the world forever.

Harry Benson: Shoot First
Directed by Matthew Miele and Justin Bare
Magnolia Pictures
Opens December 9, IFC Center