Whether or not you've heard of Harry Benson, you're familiar with his work. From the image of Muhammad Ali standing alongside the Beatles, Ali playfully pretending to punch George Harrison's ear, to the shot of Bobby Kennedy with three bullets in him, lying on the floor of the kitchen in the Ambassador Hotel, Benson's photographs are a part of our culture, a part of us.
The entertaining documentary Harry Benson: Shoot First puts together the pieces of what audiences already subconsciously know about the career of the famous photographer. Even the on-screen interviewees (active admirers of Benson's work) flip through his portfolio and exclaim, "He took this one too?" as they stop to look at yet another familiar photo.
The film is only partially about the singsongy, twinkly-eyed Scottish man who created intimate portraits of celebrities—it's more about the performance of celebrity itself. Directors Matthew Miele and Justin Bare worked together on the documentaries Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf's (2013) and Crazy About Tiffany's (2016). Their main interests seem to lie in fashion, presentation, style, and fame. They apply this lens to Benson’s most serious and political work, including asking fashion designers and editors to comment on a series depicting the Berlin Wall, a Somali refugee camp, and Ku Klux Klan members in their tall white hoods.
What Shoot First conveys so well is that while those scenes are part of history, so are the Beatles, Jack Nicholson, and Johnny Carson—and the arbiters of image and style will decide how (and if) they are seen and remembered.