Harry Benson's cameras have helped tell the story of the last sixty years, from The Beatles touching down in America to Nixon's rise and fall, from the Watts riots to the dark hours following Martin Luther King's assassination. Benson's work capturing pop icons, sports heroes, and hollywood royalty has made him one of the most celebrated portrait photographers in history, but much of his best work was made in much darker times: famine, racial struggle, poverty, and war. He's seen it all, and so it's fitting that in Shoot First, a recently-released 90-minute documentary focused on his life and work, we see him up close.

Comprised of interviews with friends, colleagues, and dozens of Benson's famous subjects, Shoot First is a swift-moving review of Benson's photography career, from his first images shot while growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, to his current work. His hit-list is stunning: it seems as if no one was too famous, too powerful, or too reticent to escape Benson's lens. Much of its 90-minute run time is spent on cheery reminiscing about The Beatles throwing a pillow fight, and the fashions of Truman Capote's legendary Black and White Ball. But the film's emotional peak rests upon a batch of stunning black and white frames Benson shot in the minutes just after Robert Kennedy was assassinated in a Los Angeles hotel. "It would have been a nightmare if I hadn't have photographed it," Benson recalled.

Photographers and pop culture historians alike will revel in the images and untold stories that make up Shoot First. Benson is happy with the film, too, but so much reflection inevitably becomes bittersweet. "It made me feel a bit melancholy," he said while at home in his Upper East Side apartment. "I saw the old man up there, me. And you never think of yourself as being aged. But I'm 87, what can I do about it?"

Why did you ultimately decide to live in New York? Well, there were good magazines to work for, there was Life. There was Life and there was Time-Life. There was Sports Illustrated, Look, and all. Here, somebody could be a bachelor photographer.

How does New York figure in your mind as far as a backdrop or a setting or even a community for the subjects that you've photographed? New York is a great backdrop for everything I do, everything is here. Every neighborhood has got something to it. It's just a wonderful place, and a good place even if you're lonely. Meaning, if you look in the newspaper you will see somebody is having a lecture tonight. And I think it would be somebody very interesting. And you can go there. And you can go and have a little coffee or something with different people, and you can make friends. There's always a coffee shop across the road. And most important, there's always a plumber in your building [laughs].

If you weren't here, do you think there's another city that you would certainly be in? I like the Midwest. I like high up. I like LA too, regardless of what they say about it. It's not bad there. Full of daft people, but you know, who cares? It's good to see some daft people around!

Has your work made it difficult to separate moments you've photographed from their physical locations? Are you able to visit LA and not think about the Ambassador Hotel shooting? Sure, but a bad experience in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel would have been what other photographers did—walk away from it. I wake up and go through the whole shooting, at night. Not as a nightmare, but awake. That would have been the nightmare—not doing the job that was in front of me.

You speak about that a lot in the film—about guts and determination, being "the first one in and the last one out." Where did you— Well, you want to be on the payroll at the end of the week. I've found that photographers don't last that long. I did it, because I enjoy it, but there were others who basically stopped at 44 or 45.

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The Beatles visiting Muhammad Ali's boxing gym in Miami, 1964 (Courtesy Harry Benson)

Why do you think that is? They're lazy. That's just about it. They get another kind of job like photo editor, working behind a desk. It's a hard business to stop and start at, because every day is a new day. Actually, this is one of the great things about photography. Even if I'm working on a story that lasts for a few days, it's, "How am I going to make this better, how am I going to look at this in a different way?" And not just by changing the lens. And you're not stuck with the bureaucracy of working in an office. One of the secrets of life is staying away from an office. You can tell them lies, over the telephone. "What are you doing?" "I'm doing this?" and be full of shit [laughs].

Do you feel as if the personal time you've spent with these famous subjects, people who are idolized, has given you a sense of knowing them closely? How do you feel about their public personas? Not really, no. When I hear that somebody's a very difficult person, then I want the story. Someone like Bobby Fischer, who I got very close to. But when I hear someone's a wonderful person, to die for, the best, oh you'll love them—I go for my revolver. Meaning I know they're just some jerk who knows how to handle me.

Well then what's that relationship like, because you're handling them and they're handling you... It's like a boxer opening himself up to be hit. You work at it until you get them in the swimming pool. I don't like studio pictures. I hate them. They're alright for catalogs, fashion ads, and pieces of shit. It's not photography.

Do you recall moments of being very starstruck? I know what you mean, and it's not bad to let people think you're slightly in awe of them. You can use that, to get what you want, because they think you think they're wonderful.

I always dressed well when I went on any assignment. Whether I went to the White House or any house, I always wore a suit and a tie. Too many photographers turn up like maintenance men, to fix the air conditioning, and look like shit. There's nothing in the photographer's manual that says you must wear a backwards baseball cap and old jeans.

I'm still the same loathsome person I am in a suit as out! But it's about showing respect for your subject, and who you work for.

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Hillary and Bill Clinton, 1992 (Courtesy Harry Benson)

Thinking more in the present, are there things happening in photography now that interest you? I think photography's on a boom right now. You pass all the stores and see a person showing somebody how to work a camera. The pictures they're taking are good, where before with film, it was shit. They were crap. People would go on holiday and take 12 rolls of color film, send it up to the one hour photo, and then an hour later they'd go and pick up 12 rolls of shit. That doesn't happen now, people are taking good pictures. And it's going to get better. The only thing is, the pictures aren't so witty or showing a crisis. But that will come.

Some of the best conversations I've had with photographer friends of mine are about photos we haven't taken—ones we for some reason or another shied away from. Are there any images that stick with you, that you chose not to take for some reason? There are plenty that have gotten away, but never one where I made the decision not to. There were other photographers at the Kennedy assassination, telling me, "How could you do this?" I said, "I did and you didn't, and I'm right, and you're wrong. You've got no guts." Kerry Kennedy, just up until six months ago, was staying in one of my apartments down there. Her mother Ethel lives in Palm Beach and I see her, too. I have dinner with them at least twice a year. They know exactly who I am. Exactly. I was there when daddy was murdered. And photographed it. I liked Bobby, but if I had put my camera down or not used it, then what the fuck was I doing there?

Did you feel fear, at that time? No, I didn't. You're able to, like a horse, put blinders on. When I got knocked to the ground, punched, and all that, then I remember putting film in my sock. While I was loading the film, I look and see other people had been shot around me. I could have been one of them. After it was over I just walked a bit.

What was running through your head between the moment of the pictures and the darkroom? Well, basically, when it happened, I thought to myself, "Let me fuck up tomorrow, and not now. This is it. This is a full stop. This is an assassination." And it was so close to Dallas. I was aware of all that. Also, people in the office knew I was there. There were going to be phone calls!

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Ethel Kennedy moments after her husband, Robert, had been shot to death at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles (Courtesy Harry Benson)

You've taken very beautiful photographs of people who are, I think, worse than anyone I've met. Lennon's killer [Mark David Chapman]...To make a beautiful, true, empathetic photograph of someone, I assume, on some level would repulse you—that's difficult. Well, it does show him doing daft things. He's jumping in the air, he's got the book over his face, so right away we know he's daft, that he's mad. This is what he did. I'm just asking him "Give me some action." And that's it, and he jumped in the air.

But there was never a moment where you said "This is too playful"? No, it was what he showed me, and if you think it looked too nice, then fine. But I wanted him to do what he wanted to do. I could have told him to roll up into a ball and sit on the floor and think, in his cell. But that would be manipulating the situation. I did get him up against the bars, but I could have had him praying on the floor, too. But he did it all, he liked his moment in the sun. He had thinned himself down for me, he asked "How do I look? How's my body?"

And he apologized for killing my friend John. But, I do believe that you let people do what they want to do.

I was really struck by the interview with Donald Trump in the film, how he said, "I always liked Harry's pictures, as long as he made me look good." That seems to run so counter to your goals. He liked to show off, and everything he did was for show. Politically I'm the opposite of him, otherwise I'd be stupid. But, he's good for the business, our business. That there is somebody that when you go to work with him, will give you a photograph. It means you've done your job, you're going to be on the payroll at the end of the week. And in a way has moved you ahead a little bit—you've got pictures of the bastard. He'll go through all kinds of emotions for you, and what more do you want?

How would you hope to be remembered? Good pictures, that's all. That's important.