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Harry Benson

The Kiss That Saved Vanity Fair—Observations on Harry Benson’s New Documentary, “Shoot First”

July 7, 2017 - Bruce Helander

The somewhat mysterious and provocative title above does not refer to iconic works by Gustav Klimt and Auguste Rodin that are both titled “The Kiss,” or the infamous rock group by the same name, or even the celebrated film, “Kiss of the Spider Woman.” What the title does relate to is one of the most historically famous recognized smackaroos of the 20th century, a rare private moment between President Ronald and First Lady Nancy Reagan, shot at the White House and featured in Vanity Fair. It was 1985, and the magazine was having its challenges staying alive during a post-recession slide in newsstand sales, which demanded a quick decision by then-editor Tina Brown, a ‘sink or swim’ solution that appeared in the form of a stimulating cover story with memorable images provided by Harry Benson, one of the most prominent photographic journalists of our time. Benson, the respected raconteur of pictures and people with a reputation for nailing down a crucial shot that nobody else could get, saved the day and resurrected one of America’s leading publications.

 

‘Harry Benson: Shoot First’ breezes through the photographer’s story

December 8, 2016 - Pat Padua | The Washington Post

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.

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.”

Review 'Harry Benson: Shoot First' profiles a 'celebrity' photographer who was, in fact, so much more

December 8, 2016 - Kenneth Turan | Los Angeles Times

Not all exceptional photographers live rarefied lives, some toil in the vineyards and take spectacular pictures again and again and again. Such is the case with Harry Benson, who has been doing it for 60 years and has no intention of stopping.

But as the intriguing documentary "Harry Benson: Shoot First" demonstrates, the fact that an art-for-art's sake modus operandi is alien to Benson makes his work and the personality and philosophy behind it more compelling than they would otherwise be.

A commercial photographer almost without peer, Benson is best known for his 1964 portraits of the Beatles, shots of them pillow fighting in a Paris hotel room and clowning around with Muhammad Ali among many others.

But as demonstrated by directors Justin Bare and Matthew Miele, who previously collaborated on the charming "Scatter My Ashes at Bergdof's," to think of Benson only in connection with the Beatles is to seriously underestimate what he is capable of doing.

For one thing, Benson has shot an astonishing range of celebrities, from Yogi Berra at his ease to the society revelers at Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball to the most personal portrait of Bill and Hillary Clinton you've ever seen.

Personally gregarious, Benson turns out to have a special affinity for loners, creating images of unparalleled intimacy with reclusive chess champion Bobby Fischer, Michael Jackson in his Neverland Ranch, even the distant Johnny Carson.

In fact, when football star Joe Namath swore he'd never let anyone photograph his bachelor apartment, Benson made it happen after he convinced Carson to call Namath on his behalf.

But Benson is hardly just a glossy celebrity photographer. Directors Bare and Miele provide examples of his evocative work on impoverished Glasgow, the American civil rights movement and refugee camps in Somalia. In fact, the only thing Benson refuses to do is shoot in the tame environment of a studio.

"Shoot First" does more than display these images, it details how a poor boy from the Scottish town of Troon who left school at age 13 managed to take those pictures and talks about some of the issues they raise.

Two factors are key in Benson's success, starting with his commanding personal magic, which boldface names from Donald Trump to Vogue's Andre Leon Talley (who says "he could charm the snake out of the tree") testify to.

Equally important is Benson's phenomenal drive and ambition honed during his career's early days in the hyper-competitive newspaper world of London's Fleet Street. "He always says 'opportunity strikes like an express train,'" one of his son-in-laws says, and Benson is notorious in his family for making sure that work always comes first.

Finally, and perhaps most interesting, is Benson's ironclad belief that when you are on assignment, you take the picture without qualm or question because you have an obligation to document what is in front of you.

Because Benson was with Robert F. Kennedy the night he was assassinated, that credo has lead to some of his most controversial photos, including one of Ethel Kennedy raising her hand to try to block his lens. Benson is unapologetic about his shots to this day, stating flatly, "ethics are an excuse if you don't have the guts."

None of this would matter if Benson were not so preternaturally gifted, capable of one-off photos like a haunting next-day shot of a boy who missed a plane ride that took the lives of all his school classmates.

"He can shoot fast and make art," a friend says, and "Harry Benson: Shoot First" makes that point again and again.

'Harry Benson: Shoot First' Review: Photographer Doc Is Stellar Portrait of an Artist

December 7, 2016 - Peter Travers | RollingSstone

See me! Feel me! Touch me! That’s a lyric from the Who's Tommy, but it also describes the sensations that swim in your head when you look at photos by Harry Benson. There's music in them, as well as spontaneity and heat; they're alive in ways still camera images rarely are. That vitality is an essential part of the great Scot himself, a livewire from Glasgow who just turned 87 without losing the sharp burr on his tongue, the green pocket squares that dot his jackets or the witty glint of challenge that shines out of his eyes – and his photographs.

Ever since the world marveled at his iconic black-and-white images of the Beatles pillow-fighting in a hotel room and horsing around on their inaugural American tour in 1964, Benson has been known for snapping celebs – he's captured them all from Elizabeth Taylor and Michael Jackson to Donald Trump. But the term celebrity photographer is way too limiting. It's the world that has always been his subject, whether in a war zone, on a civil rights march with Martin Luther King or right at the center of intense human agony, which found him camera-ready at the assassination of Bobby Kennedy.

He's a complicated artist, that Harry. And he's captured in all his funny, feisty, gritty and graceful complexity in Harry Benson: Shoot First, a spellbinder of a documentary from Justin Bare and Matthew Miele that plays like one of his photo sessions, caught on the fly and filled with insights on the periphery of the frame. Sure, there are plenty of talking-head interviews with the likes of Trump, Joe Namath, Sharon Stone and Harry's daughter, who speaks movingly of a father who always put work first. But what work! His great photographs practically jump off the screen in a series on montages that take the breath away.

Bare and Miele do more than track a remarkable career here; they reveal the essentials of what makes Benson unique. Any paparazzo with moxie can get into the action and shoot first. But what this shutterbug's eye arranges, sometimes in a split second, is the work of a singular craftsman with a rare gift: raising the click of a camera shutter to the level of art.

Second GIFF features films & panels, starting June 9

June 4, 2016 - Joe Meyers | CT Post

The second annual Greenwich International Film Festival will run four days starting Thursday, June 9.

In addition to more than 40 new movies, the festival will include industry panels dealing with the challenges of filmmaking. A free discussion of the process of turning novels into movies, “From Book to Screen,” on Sunday, June 12, is sponsored by Hearst Connecticut Media Group. Kathie Lee Gifford will moderate a group that includes “The Danish Girl” author David Ebershoff and best-selling author Adriana Trigiani, who recently wrote and directed the movie version of her book, “Big Stone Gap.”

 

Several high-profile new documentaries will be shown, including “Harry Benson: Shoot First,” about the career of the legendary Life magazine photographer who was assigned to cover The Beatles during the band’s first U.S. tour in 1964.

Greenwich International Film Festival, several venues, Thursday, June 9, through Sunday, June 12. $15-$8. 203-340-9105, greenwichfilm.org

‘Harry Benson: Shoot First’ Documentary Bought by Magnolia

January 5, 2016 - Dave McNary | Variety

Magnolia Pictures has acquired worldwide rights to the documentary “Harry Benson: Shoot First,” three months after its premiere at the Hamptons International Film Festival.

Benson is best known for photographing the Beatles on their initial U.S. tour.

The film is directed by Matthew Miele (“Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s”) and Justin Bare (“Coked Up!”). The film includes Sharon Stone, Alec Baldwin, Donald Trump, Piers Morgan, Dan Rather, James L. Brooks, Henry Kissinger, Ralph Lauren and Joe Namath.

Magnolia is targeting a 2016 theatrical release for the film, which charts the career of the photographer who initially rose to fame alongside the Beatles, having been assigned to cover their inaugural trip to the United States in 1964. His portfolio includes images of Winston Churchill, Bobby Fischer, Muhammad Ali, Greta Garbo, Michael Jackson, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Robert F. Kennedy assassination.

Benson, a native of Scotland, is 86 and continues working. Producers are Justin Bare, Gigi Benson and Heather Silverman. Executive producers are Matthew Miele, Stephen McCarthy and Clive Gershon. Co-executive producer is Arnie Herrmann.

Magnolia plans to launch international sales at the Berlin  Film Festival next month. The deal was negotiated by Magnolia’s Dori Begley and John Von Thaden, with Cinetic Media on behalf of the filmmakers.