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‘The Incomparable Rose Hartman’ Review: Portrait of the Artist as an Obsessive Observer

Hartman snapped New York celebrities for decades — but was she a skilled photographer, or merely in the right places at the right time?

Is celebrity photographer Rose Hartman truly “incomparable,” as the title of this modest documentary breathlessly promises?

Well, that seems to be a matter of individual taste. It is fair to say that her breezy biography (which she co-executive produced) falls a little short. But if you share Hartman’s trifecta of obsessions — photography, fashion and fame — you’ll find plenty to appreciate.

First-time director Otis Mass has assembled an impressive collection of talking heads to support his thesis: that Hartman deserves a full-length film of her own. Simon Doonan, Donna Karan, Carolina Herrera, Patrick McMullan, and Phillip Bloch are among those who contextualize Hartman’s decades of work as one of the most tenacious photographers of Manhattan’s jet set.

In the 1970s, she was a fixture at Studio 54; in the ’80s and ’90s she recorded countless fashion shows and A-list events. She was always there, with her camera, to capture the moments we’d never otherwise get to see: Andy Warhol and Lou Reed, heads together whispering secrets. Woody Allen, small and startled. Linda Evangelista, kissing a mystery man.

Mass makes good use of Hartman’s archival images, keeping things flowing with a steady stream of glittery nostalgia. But what’s especially interesting is the striking ambivalence of her peers. We don’t hear nearly as much as we might expect about the quality of her work or her creative gifts. Instead, we get a decisive focus on her presence and persistence: that she was one of the few photographers on hand at a particular moment in time. “Rose always had a compelling instinct,” says an old friend, “to get closest to the hottest, most important person in the room.”

Some observers insist that she’s nothing like today’s paparazzi. Others counter that she would push anyone aside to get what she wanted. A fellow photographer bluntly says, “Most people, you mention Rose and they roll their eyes back.” And even the admiration can feel oddly underwhelming. (Doonan refers to her photography as “impulsive portraiture,” which seems like an accurate assessment of the work we see.) Gallery director Ronald Sosinski brings up the crucial question, and one that’s never really answered: “Who is she? Is she an artist, or is she just an observer?”

Eventually, we get the sense that the unabashedly brash Hartman has done herself no favors in establishing her own legacy. So your own connection to the film will depend, in large part, on your feelings about her. She was raised in the East Village, and she’s one of those rough-edged, only-in-New-York characters we don’t see much of anymore. That alone, of course, makes her compelling to watch. She’s truly a self-made woman, an unapologetic hustler who climbed her way to the top and fought hard for her every achievement.

She also shoves others out of the way without care, is nasty to anyone who challenges or disappoints her, and enthusiastically attacks friends and strangers alike with barbed commentary. During an interview with Mass, she calls him “idiotic,” which prompts him to tell her to “shut the f— up.”

But he clearly adores her, and the elite, ephemeral universe that she captured. The glamour of gorgeous Jerry Hall, and the beauty of swanning Halston models. The aspiration of an imperious Bianca Jagger, riding her white horse through Studio 54. And most of all, the dream Hartman’s photos really represent: to be, by sheer force of will, in the center of it all.