Harry Benson: Shoot First shines light on legendary photographer

Directors fawn over the man who captured iconic images of the Beatles, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr.

HARRY BENSON: SHOOT FIRST (Justin Bare, Matthew Miele). 90 minutes. Opens Friday (December 16). See listing. Rating: NNN

Though he may be most recognized for capturing a pillow fight between The Beatles, photographer Harry Benson shot the Kennedys, MLK and the KKK. His work for Life Magazine, Vanity Fair and other outlets created some of the most recognizable and influential images of the 20th century.

The best thing Justin Bare and Matthew Miele’s documentary has to offer on Benson’s work is a slide show of these images, with the iconic photographer and other high-profile talking heads providing a running commentary.

The directors add nothing in terms of visual flair and a structuring narrative. Critical investigations into Benson’s methods, like his paparazzi moment with an aged Greta Garbo or opportunistic shots of a slain Bobby Kennedy, are limited. There’s much more fawning at the photographer’s rare access, a thing that gets redundant and never comes close to achieving the kind of intimacy Benson had with his subjects.

But Benson proves fascinating regardless. His ability to get power players to let their guard down and show some real vulnerability is a lost art, and I couldn’t help looking back at that work while thinking about our current moment, where images that upset or inspire can be found on Instagram, Snapchat and TMZ.

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