Opening this Friday at the Laemmle Monica Film Center is “The Incomparable Rose Hartman,” a short documentary about the notorious NYC fashion/celebrity photographer. Directed by Øtis Mass, who is yelled at several times on camera by his feisty subject, the film is a humorous look at a woman who became a regular on the New York fashion scene due to both her brazen personality and her keen eye for candid portraits. The movie has earned rave reviews after screening at festivals such as SXSW, Toronto’s HotDocs and DOC NYC.
80-year-old Hartman narrates her story, along with testimonials from various people in the industry, such as Phillip Bloch, Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera and Simon Doonan. There are amusing debates about whether or not Hartman should be considered paparazzi, considering the fact that she was a hustler, slipping into events to which she was not always invited, and shoving and elbowing herself past other photographers. In addition to her obvious talent, Hartman is distinctive for being one of the first to shoot the behind-the-scenes, backstage drama at fashion shows. She was an early chronicler of the NYC fashion shows in the 1970s, before the scene or industry there was as prominent as in Paris. In a time when designers like Halston and Perry Ellis were first drawing attention to American fashion, Hartman was on the spot, taking excellent shots of the “most interesting people in the room.”
She was also a regular at Studio 54 and captured much of the glamour and craziness that took place inside the famous club. Over the years, she went from being an outside observer of these ritzy circles to becoming a part of them herself, whether or not that was originally her plan. She speaks in an affected accent that sounds slightly British, and she is certainly self-important, but, at least in the film, you get the impression that she’s often half-joking. It’s all part of this “interesting” persona she’s made for herself. At her own exhibits, for example, she accosts people, saying repeatedly, “Look at my photos. Have you seen my photos? You’re not looking at them.” People don’t know whether to laugh or to run away.
But while her more obnoxious behavior made Hartman memorable, her real legacy is her talent at capturing unusual, intriguing and intimate moments at large gatherings of those are who very used to being in the public eye.