'The Incomparable Rose Hartman': Film Review

The Incomparable Rose Hartman Doc- Bianca Jagger on a white horse - Publicity -H 2017
Courtesy of Rose Hartman/The Artists Company
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Otis Mass' documentary delivers a personal portrait of the iconoclastic celebrity and fashion photographer.

There was a time when the subjects of celebrity photographs were the primary focus. Now, it seems, we want to know just as much about the person who took the picture. The latest in a seemingly endless procession of documentaries about shutterbugs, The Incomparable Rose Hartman doesn’t quite make the case for lengthily profiling its irascible and not particularly interesting subject.

As is often the case, you may not have heard of Hartman but you’ve undoubtedly seen some of her pictures. Especially the one for which she is most renowned, showing Bianca Jagger astride a white horse in that 1970s-era mecca for colorful celebrities, Studio 54. Hartman shot much of her best work there, thanks to the relaxed drug- and sex-filled environment in which stars let down their guard.

Hartman was never particularly popular with her peers, and this film directed by Otis Mass helps you understand why: “You really want to strangle her,” one interview subject complains. Pugnacious and combative, she’s not above using physical aggression to get her shots. Her small stature only helps, with her nimble quickness accounting for why some people refer to her as a “Tasmanian Devil.” Nor is she particularly warm and friendly towards the filmmaker, whom she’s occasionally seen berating on camera. During a party celebrating the release of one of her books, Hartman browbeats a guest for not paying sufficient attention to the photographs on the wall.

Still, there’s no denying Hartman’s importance in the world of celebrity and fashion photography. She was one of the first photographers to venture backstage at fashion shows and into the designers’ studios. And as the copious samples of her work on display here illustrate, she possesses an uncanny ability to capture the spirits of her celebrity subjects. Anthony Haden-Guest, one of the film’s many talking heads, describes Hartman’s photographs as intimate rather than intrusive, while others comment about how Hartman is far different from typical paparazzi.

The documentary includes much psychobabble about Hartman’s mercurial nature as well as painting a biographical portrait of a woman whose father died when she was young and whose mother had a domineering personality. Among the photographer’s many quirks is affecting a British accent.

Ultimately, the film tells you more than you probably wanted to know about Hartman, who is even seen providing a tour of the East Village neighborhood in which she grew up. But there’s no denying her tenacity and indomitability; now an octogenarian, she shows no signs of slowing down, either personally or professionally.

Production company: Massive Original
Distributor: The Artists Company
Director: Otis Mass
Producers: Bob Fisher, Otis Mass
Executive producers: Sally Antonacchio, Erik Smollinger, Rose Hartman
Directors of photography: Casey Cormier, Scott Maguire, Ian Mayer, Eric Robbins, Russell Swanson
Editor: Ian Mayer

71 minutes