Iconic photographer Rose Hartman is known by the places she gets into and the company she keeps. And over the years, she has kept some incredible company with greats, near greats, and infamously greats. The astounding photographs Hartman took of personages who were/are cultural phenomena have a range and breadth that few other photographers have been able to match. And for those who do compete with her in their lasting power to have photographed everyone from Liz Taylor and Richard Burton to Andy Warhol and his crew, Johnny Depp, Bianca and Mick Jagger, etc., Rose has managed to excel in solidifying the still moment in historical time that no other photographer has seen, let alone managed to capture.
In his fascinating documentary The Incomparable Rose Hartman, director Øtis Mass uncovers the Hartman photographic touch to reveal that at the time, as a woman who was not of the breathtaking celebrity “class,” Hartman did the unthinkable. She captured the uncapturable elites on film in the candid moment elevating the celebrity “in the real” with immeasurable grace. Mass asks her the pointed questions about her artistry and herself (she is slippery), while allowing the chemistry of her feisty nature, her assertiveness and her maverick determination to move forward, to shine on film.
Mass, through interviews with Hartman and others (friends, confidantes, assistants, fashionistas, critics, designers), shows how she became successful and how she was able to make a career redefining herself and her time. She learned to get the “money shots.” To do this she vaulted herself with authority into the midst of the trending cultural action, surreptitiously walking into galas, openings, celebrity “events” wherever they might be. She even, through extraordinary means, secured tickets to events whose invitation or entrance, money couldn’t buy.
Hartman influenced what modern photographers and fashion designers take for granted today. She went back stage before haute couture fashion shows to shoot the hair and make-up preparation and whatever she intuited was fascinating and real and beautiful. This was unheard of and simply never considered “back in the day.” She had unprecedented access because no one thought to stop her. And as a result she created a movement seeking to reveal the underpinnings of fashion beyond the runway.
Mass reveals that part of her mantra and her mission was to snap the finest, most beautiful photographs of “the beautiful people” against the bas relief of reality. She took candid photos which is not easy to do to make the subject look awesome. Most vitally, she sought to allow the personage’s soul to peak through in the hope that she would be able to identify who the individual was beyond the mask of appearance, beyond the artificiality of “celebrity persona,” past image, to their deepest most vulnerable humanity.
Rose took one-of-a-kind photographs that are stellar in their revealing the wistfulness in the personalities so that viewers would empathize. Unlike paparazzi who look to embarrass, to humiliate, to weaken, to demean, her intention was and is to reveal the innocence in the beauty, the mischief and fun in the heart, the secret love between couples, the deeper elements of character. Indeed, her images bring one closer to her subjects and allow the viewer to see the intricacies of the shot composition to appreciate its artistry.
Her photographs are always unique and singularly Rose Hartman. It is no surprise that with her sterling images she defined New York City as a fashion center of glamour and whose night life blazed past dawn. Her efforts helped to redouble the efforts of the art world where Warhol and his crew and retinue played, danced and made history.
Hartman captured then and now our celebrity social history like no other. And Mass edits archived photographs and intercuts them with Hartman commentary and further adds discussions with those who know her and her work best. Throughout, he intercuts those interviewed with black and white photographs to illustrate their points. What he arrives at is an interesting combination of social history, critique of the times, and a selection of key personages who defined the times (from the 1960s to the present). In short he crystallizes how Hartman evolved as a woman and an artist, intimating her fierce perseverance. Her tenacity and ambition in the largely male field of photography was unknown at that time for a woman that size (she is tiny), and from that social strata.
After screening Mass’ documentary about a maker and shaper of New York culture through her candid photographs, I had the opportunity to do an email interview with the irrepressible Rose Hartman and found her to be forthright and delightful.