Film Review: The Incomparable Rose Hartman

This ambitiously named doc reaffirms that it was its subject’s sharp elbows, as well as her photographs, which were the making of her.
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Studio 54 was—by all accounts, this writer’s included—the greatest nightclub ever, and the famous photo of Bianca Jagger, beaming in Halston and riding a white horse into her own birthday party there, remains its most iconic image. That shot was taken by the redoubtable Rose Hartman, who is the subject of this “Was it really necessary?” documentary. Incidentally, “redoubtable” is putting it mildly, for I, like so many others out and about on the New York “scene” for years, have been trampled by this beyond-aggressive, 80-year-old miniature pit bull of a woman, in her anxiousness to pursue her targeted camera subject.

That subject invariably possesses the elusive quality called glamour, be it a celebrity with the stature of a Liz Taylor or some nameless model twirling her stuff down the catwalk. Directed by the doubtlessly long-suffering Otis Mass, who seems to have also served in the capacity of frenemy, motivational therapist and muffin lackey to his less-than-easy muse, the film reveals Hartman to be a native New Yorker, raised in modest circumstances in the East Village, forever gobsmacked by the world she first glimpsed in her mother’s copies of Vogue magazine. She was Stella Dallas for a long time, her outsider nose forever pressed up against the window separating her from all the luxuriousness—even, one presumes, when she found early employment as a high-school teacher.

A camera in her hand granted her access to the kind of celebrity-fueled events that make New York the city that never sleeps, and she made the most of it, lucky to be in a time—the 1970s—when paparazzi were nowhere near as prevalent as they are today and very few people were interested in covering the fashion world, which was like a private party for the cognoscenti. There were no armies of shutterbugs to claw your way through—although I’m sure she would have, happily—and she was granted backstage access to capture the heady, frantic goings-on. “That was really where everything was happening,” avers designer Donna Karan, one of the very few Hartman subjects, along with the lovely socialite Jean Shafiroff, to be interviewed in The Incomparable Rose Hartman.

There is no gainsaying Hartman’s perceptive eye, for she was able to insinuate her tiny self into the most intimate contact with beauties in the dizzying thick of it, whether a couture showing or letting it all hang out on the dance floor. Grace Jones, Jerry Hall, Mick Jagger, Iman, David Bowie, Lauren Hutton, Michael Jackson, Warhol, Liza, Halston, Marisa Berenson, supermodels Pat Cleveland, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista and other glittery names of the 1970s-90s spill across the screen, as well as the pages of Hartman’s two books, all of them impossibly young, gorgeous and vibrant, often from the party favors coursing through their veins. Hartman’s trademark was the perfectly timed “grab” shot, off the cuff and unposed, which captured the person at their most kinetically gorgeous.

But what a character she is! No mere celebrity snapper she: “Documentary photographer” is how she refers to herself, and Mass’ camera catches her sniping away in the pseudo-Brit accent she affects, whether it’s berating him for not bringing her breakfast or buttonholing guests at her own show in Paris—a decidedly grim if chic affair—insulting them if they don’t happen to know the identity of a particular personality she’s lensed. An assortment of acquaintances along with a handful of close friends weigh in, nearly all of them agreeing on how difficult and aggressive—sometimes crashing A-list events—she can be. Particularly amusing and truthful is former model Bettina Cirone, now a photographer who toils in many of the same vineyards as Hartman, but who has always managed to be her polar opposite—i.e., classy, graceful and kind. Above all, Cirone remembers how sharp her elbows can be, pushing past or against you. I, a nobody who must have been reintroduced to Hartman at least six times over the years, can attest to that as well, and feel her pain.

Click here for cast and crew information.