Harry Benson captured The Beatles, giddy on their first-ever arrival in the U.S., pillow-fighting in their hotel.
He was with them in Miami when he thought it would be cool and funny to drag them down the street to meet Muhammad Ali, training in a gym.
He caught Liz Taylor at her most glamorous, and was invited into her hospital room to photograph her at her worst — after brain surgery. “How do I look?” she asked him. “Be honest, Harry.”
“Like Sinead O’Connor.”
Harry was also there with Robert Kennedy’s family on their annual rafting trip down the Colorado River, and he was in LA’s Ambassador Hotel that night in 1968 when RFK was murdered, still shooting as Kennedy lay dying, his wife raging at him to stop. Others questioned his ethics and heart over that one.
“They just didn’t have the guts to keep shooting,” he says.
A lot of people in the playful documentary “Harry Benson: Shoot First,” try to define what an “iconic image” is — celebrities he’s photographed, from Sharon Stone and Alec Baldwin to Donald Trump, and journalists from Dan Rather to Deborah Norville and Bryant Gumbel.
The short answer is, “You’ll know it when you see it.” The shorter one is “Harry Benson took it.”
Benson, who turns 87 on Dec. 2, comes off as an adorable Scots curmudgeon in Justin Bare and Matthew Miele’s film. He colorfully curses and quotes celebrities who cursed him — because not every image he takes comes from a pre-arranged photo shoot, joking about the dirty tricks he and other photographers have played on each other to ensure that they alone have access to the famous personage or the one perfect angle from which to shoot.
He’s been a paparazzo — stalking and photographing those who don’t want their picture taken — rarely. But he’s the guy who caught the reclusive Greta Garbo, late in life, swimming in a lake — trapped, unable to escape his lens.
The famous and the beautiful get something out of the transaction, Harry growls in his Glasgow burr. “The photographer’s image keeps them alive” forever.
But he’s also been to Mogadishu, documenting the tragedy there. He photographed Klan rallies, toted cameras on civil rights marches with Martin Luther King, Jr., and captured Mississippi police storming into the marchers. That Civil Rights era shot of the German shepherd police dog with blood on his teeth? Harry Benson.
The filmmakers chat openly with Harry for the film, take him back to Glasgow, where he got his start, talking with Brits who knew him when he was making unforgettable, artistic news images for The Daily Express. They take him back to the hotel where The Beatles loved the pillows.
It’s never pointed out, but every few minutes we’re reminded that he did all this work with bulky film cameras, long before the age of auto-focus or iPhones.
He did a photo essay in Grey Gardens long before the documentary film about the two eccentric sisters came to life. He befriended the “incredibly difficult” Johnny Carson, and got inside Joe Namath’s infamous NYC bachelor pad when Joe Willy was the most famous quarterback in the land.
All along the way, he used his “Scottish charm” to get where other photographers couldn’t, chumming around with the Reagans, photographing Truman Capote’s famous “Black and White Ball,” rubbing elbows with the beautiful people on assignment for Life Magazine and others.
“A great photograph can never happen again,” Benson explains. Most of his life, in a job where “work always came first” (his wife and children testify to this), Harry Benson made sure to put himself in a position to get that great, iconic image.
And when opportunity arose, he always shot first.
MPAA Rating:unrated, with images of violence and nudity, profanity
Cast: Harry Benson, Sharon Stone, Kerry Kennedy, Dan Rather, Bryant Gumbel, Henry Kissinger, Deborah Norville
Credits:Written and directed by Justin Bare and Matthew Miele. A Magnolia release.
Running time: 1:33