Written by John Thomason. Photos by Harry Benson
From 1960 onward, when history happened, Harry Benson was there to document it.
Born in Scotland in 1929, Benson beat other photographers for jobs—sometimes literally—on London’s rough-and-tumble Fleet Street. He was a staff photographer for the London Daily Express when he received an assignment to photograph the Beatles’ first tour of Paris in 1964. His archive of the band’s nearly three week residency in the City of Light encompasses some of the most iconic and uninhibited images of the Beatles in rock history, from the Fab Four pillow-fighting in their hotel room to perusing their trove of fan mail to enjoying Pepsis and cigarettes in the hotel bar.
The shoot catapulted Benson to the international stage, where he’s remained for more than 50 years. His catalog of celebrity portraits, contracted by the top magazines in the country, is endless. He received exclusive access to Michael Jackson’s Neverland Ranch, Joe Namath’s bachelor pad, and Truman Capote’s masked balls. He shot the Bouvier Beale mother-daughter team, the troubled recluses of Grey Gardens, three years before the Maysles brothers’ documentary brought national attention to their story.
Benson has photographed every U.S. president since Eisenhower; the erection and destruction of the Berlin Wall; and the Mississippi riots of 1966. He was the first photographer to capture the newly slain body of Robert F. Kennedy, a man he considered a friend, and multiple times he has feared for his life on the job, most notably when documenting the Troubles in Northern Ireland.
“In the second half of the 20th century, Harry has taken some of the most extraordinary images of our society, of our culture, of living history,” says Holden Luntz, the gallerist on Worth Avenue who represents Benson. “I think he’s gotten his camera in front of more great people and more great events than anyone else, and once it’s there, he’s always known what to do with it. He has an uncanny instinct for what makes for a great picture.”
Six books have been compiled of Benson’s work, with a seventh on the way, and this year saw the national release of “Harry Benson: Shoot First,” a documentary about his legacy featuring effusive praise from talking heads ranging from Dan Rather to Sharon Stone, Alec Baldwin to Donald Trump.
Benson, now 87, is a Wellington snowbird with a house in the Palm Beach Polo Club. Inside the Holden Luntz Gallery, and over dinner at Pizza Al Fresco across the street, Benson discussed his career in an extensive conversation with Boca Raton.
When you were taking those Beatles shots in 1964, did you have the feeling of, ‘Wow, I have something really special here?’
No. In fact, I turned the job down when I was told about it, late at night. The phone rang, and my editor said, “We’d like you to go to Paris in the morning with the Beatles.” I told them I couldn’t go, because I was going to Africa to do a story on a year after the independence—Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania. I was a serious journalist. I didn’t want to do a rock group. My editor said, “That’s fine, go to Africa.” And the phone goes off five minutes later: “Harry, the editor says you’re going to Paris.” And I wasn’t too happy, but you do what you’re told. So I went to Paris.
Before they opened at the [Olympia Theatre], they went and did a gig out in Fontainebleau, outside of Paris. Before the Beatles came on, I went back to my car for another piece of equipment. I’m walking back in, the Beatles came on, and I knew I was on the right story. It was in Paris when they broke through, meaning they were hitting No. 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5 on the charts. When I went on it, I went on a music story. Within three days, it had become a news story. It was sensational. The pillow fight was the night they were told they were No. 1 in America, with “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
After that shoot, did you take a liking to shooting figures from pop culture?
No, I just did what I was told. I would do any piece of shit that came up. I did all kinds of jobs. I was definitely not a rock and roll photographer. Because after you do the Beatles, who wants to do Hall & Oates?
I did a bit on the Stones. I did the Who. I did quite a bit on Michael Jackson.
You have shots of his Neverland Ranch that nobody had shot before. How did you gain his trust?
I’m Scottish, and I would wear a Scottish tweed jacket. And he loved it. So in my career with Michael Jackson, he had taken three of my tweed jackets off my back.
Your famous photograph of Greta Garbo swimming at a public beach has some detractors, particularly her family. Has there been any time in your career when you feel you’ve crossed the line into an invasion of privacy?
The only time I’d feel bad about it is if I didn’t take the picture. Because that’s my business. You must never see the other person’s point of view. There’s only one point of view. That’s mine. It’s your call—if you choose not to do it, fine. But I know that if I hadn’t photographed Bobby Kennedy when he was dying … people have asked me, “Did you have nightmares afterward?” I said, “Yes, I do wake up in the night, and I do think about it, but I don’t have nightmares.” I said, “Do you know what would give me nightmares? If I hadn’t have taken the pictures.” Because that’s my business.
Do you feel like some of your best images are the kind that you just happen upon?
I think all of my best work is spontaneous. It’s why I don’t like studios. Because you can go in a studio for five minutes and then better it. But a good photograph is a glimpse and gone forever. It can never happen again.
So you prefer the hardcore photojournalistic assignments over portraits?
I’ve always wanted to do the hard stuff, but I never wanted to be a peddler of gloom. Life goes up and down, and that’s how I wanted my photographs to be. I could do something happy in the morning, then the riot starts at 5 o’clock. It’s like changing a channel. And I’m following a camera.
What was your No. 1 motivation?
To take good photographs. And be the best I could be. And that comes from working on Fleet Street, where it was very competitive. But I also enjoyed beating the shit out of other photographers. It was fun!