In the moment with Harry Benson
Harry Benson Photo by Theo Wargo
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in a taxi. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg on the subway. David Rockefeller sipping coffee from a paper cup – in Rockefeller Center. Those images and many others appear in Harry Benson’s New York New York, a collection of intimate photos of famous city dwellers published late last year.
“I’ve been here since 1964,” he notes. “I came with the Beatles, and I stayed.”
Benson may have lived in New York City for all these years, but he hasn’t exactly “stayed” there. He’s taken his camera and traveled constantly. He recorded the tumult of the civil rights movement in the United States. He was steps away from Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated. He captured the fall of the Berlin Wall. (He also photographed it going up.) He was in New Orleans during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Benson’s viewfinder has seen well-known politicians, artists, and socialites, as well as anonymous civil rights marchers and disaster victims.
As a young wedding photographer, the native of Glasgow, Scotland, combined enterprise with technique. To make quick sales, he developed his shots while the bride and groom were still at the reception. He moved on to a Scottish newspaper and, in 1958, headed south to London’s Fleet Street. One early assignment found him photographing a corpse on a golf course.
In 1964, Benson arrived in New York aboard a Pan Am flight. His assignment for London’s Daily Express: Cover the rock group whose song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had risen to the top of the charts.
Benson’s many books are carefully edited compilations of his photographs, but his Manhattan apartment contains an eclectic assortment of favorites. There are images of Glasgow slums, Muhammad Ali and, of course, the Beatles. There’s James Meredith marching to integrate the University of Mississippi. There’s a photo of Greta Garbo; Benson admits that he “didn’t quite leave her alone.” In 1966, he took his camera to the Plaza Hotel for Truman Capote’s legendary Black and White Ball. Benson shows pictures of Norman Mailer and Mia Farrow, and of mustangs roaming the rugged Nevada landscape. “That was done two weeks ago,” he says.
Benson worked for Life magazine for 30 years, and later for Vanity Fair and People, during an age of outsize personalities, he says. “I was going to Miami with Muhammad Ali, who was Cassius Clay then. De Gaulle was a giant. Nixon also. And Bobby Kennedy.”
He points to a photo of mourners lining railroad tracks.
“This is from the Bobby Kennedy funeral train,” he says. “Passing through Baltimore – I just photographed through the train window.” But he quickly recalls a less somber Kennedy moment: He photographed Caroline Kennedy’s wedding, at the request of her mother.
This year, Benson judged the finalists in The Rotarian’s photography contest and agreed to sit – for a conversation.
THE ROTARIAN: You’ve enjoyed a 60-year career. Are you nostalgic for the darkroom and the Speed Graphic camera, that staple of tabloid photographers?
BENSON: A little bit. I miss the old techniques, like working with chemicals in the darkroom. I miss the camaraderie with colleagues and subjects. And now I’m going to contradict that, because photography is not a team sport – we photographers are spiders; we work alone. A Speed Graphic [one rests on a shelf nearby] is heavy, but it’s not any heavier than the cameras I use now. I never use film anymore. But I’m glad my career was done on film. Today you see a lot of fake photographs. Magazine covers and what’s inside are manipulated.
TR: You’ve photographed politicians, theater and film people, and society figures. You’ve covered poverty and sports and violence. How have you managed to be present for so many iconic images?
BENSON: When I worked for the Daily Express, the reason I did well is that a daily newspaper cares about one thing: “That picture’s fine, Harry. But what are you going to do for us today?” I had to prove myself every day. I didn’t think then of doing books or having gallery shows. I just thought of staying on the payroll at the end of the week. I’ve photographed every American president since Eisenhower. The next day – or even the next hour – I could be down in a police station while they were bringing some lowlife in for questioning. I’ve shot in prisons and hospitals. I’ve never thought anything was below, beyond, or above me.
TR: Do you know right away when you’ve made a memorable photograph?
BENSON: Sometimes a picture takes time. I hate to sound pretentious, but it’s like wine: It’s better to let it mature. Maybe 50 years later I’ll say, “Not bad.” And with film, you were never sure it had come out until it was developed. You’d be bringing it from Africa or Ukraine or someplace, and it could have been damaged. And I used to be a darkroom technician. You had to be a technician in those days. In my hotel rooms, I developed and printed film and transmitted the photos via the telephone line.
TR: What hasn’t changed for Harry Benson?
BENSON: What hasn’t changed is the way I work. I’m an 82-year-old man, and I still go about taking photographs the same way, even though they’re digital. Now I can look and see what I’ve got, and I must like that image. I can and do make corrections. Sometimes I’m amazed by the pictures I get using digital technology. And some of those pictures I know I wouldn’t have got on film. Digital digs in deep.
TR: The contrast between assignments in Hollywood and war zones must be jarring.
BENSON: I’ve always had a weakness for children and animals. I’m not saying this to sound like I’m a wonderful fella, because I’m not. But I have photographer friends who would photograph the children with the big bellies at about 4 in the afternoon, when the light is at its best, so they would get more artistic photographs. I just photographed them the way they were.
TR: Do you have to be a bit cunning to gain the trust of a subject?
BENSON: I become friendly, but I only go so far. If I’m going to photograph somebody and I’m invited for dinner the night before, I don’t go. The subject is going to ask, “Harry, what kind of photograph do you want of me?” And I’ll say, “I’d love to get you into the pool with your six Dalmatians.” “Wonderful idea,” he says. Then his wife reminds him at bedtime about the urban renewal program where he took away a swimming pool for underprivileged children. So guess who’s not going to pose in his pool? I’m not out to hurt. I’m not interested in what they say. That’s not my business. My business is an image. And I never have dinner with a subject afterwards. I don’t want him to say, “Please don’t use that picture of me in the bubble bath.”
TR: Your photos of the Beatles are famous. But you almost didn’t take the assignment in 1964.
BENSON: I was going to Africa because it was the year after the Uhuru – independence for Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. I was going with two very clever Oxford dons, big-time writers. I’d had all my vaccinations. I didn’t want the Beatles assignment. I’m a serious journalist. Why would I want to photograph a rock ̓n’ roll group that hadn’t yet broken out? But I’m in a business where you do what you’re told. The Daily Express sent me to Paris. I wasn’t too happy. The Beatles had a gig out in Fontainebleau. I needed another piece of equipment, so I went out to my car. When I went back into the hall, I could hear [sings] “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you/Tomorrow I’ll miss you.” Then I knew I was on the right story. It was a phenomenon. It was Beatlemania.
TR: Photojournalists work to convey an intimacy with their subjects. Do you feel there are ethical boundaries that you must skirt, or even cross, to photograph someone in an unguarded moment?
BENSON: But what are the boundaries? Ethics could be a road back for people who are not willing to go the step closer. Ethically, I couldn’t photograph Bobby Kennedy dying? I’m a photographer. I’m a journalist. I’m not there to editorialize. I’m not there to say the public can’t see this or that. A lot of photographers would refuse to go into the kitchen [where Bobby Kennedy was shot]. It was awful. It was somebody I liked. I was relieved afterwards that I did it, and I was more relieved that my pictures came out. But that wasn’t pleasant. No one was shouting, “Three cheers for the photographer.”
TR: How did you manage to catch the pillow fight with John, Paul, George, and Ringo?
BENSON: A bunch of us were sitting around in their hotel room in Paris after a show. And one of the Beatles happened to mention, “That was some pillow fight the other night.” So I thought, “Hmm? That’s a good picture.” I was the Daily Express photographer, but there was also a photographer from the London Daily Mail there. I wasn’t about to say anything. And I was watching him to see if he had caught on. He hadn’t shown he’d heard anything. Two nights later, going on midnight, I’m back in the room. I said, “How about a pillow fight?” But John Lennon said no: “It will make us look childish and silly, and we’ve got to get rid of that image.” Now this is the night that Brian Epstein comes into the room and tells them “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is the No. 1 song in America and they’ve been booked on The Ed Sullivan Show. Paul is drinking brandy. And John slips away, comes back, and comes up behind Paul with a pillow. That’s all. The picture wasn’t posed. It wasn’t choreographed. You couldn’t pose that picture.
TR: You will judge the finalists in The Rotarian’s photography contest. What are your criteria for a good picture?
BENSON: A good photograph can never happen again. “Each a glimpse and gone forever” – that’s a line from Robert Louis Stevenson. I always remember that. He’s describing a boy looking out a train window and watching things pass by. That’s what photography is. I don’t like studio pictures, because you can go back a year later and improve them. That’s what we see with photographers now. Judging is a tough job, because you want to be fair and you want to give it to the best. I want to pick the right photo. It means an awful lot to someone.
TR: How has digital photo enhancement changed things?
BENSON: I’m glad I never had the technology to tell lies, because I probably would have been telling lies. [laughs] I could take a picture of you and my dogs, but feel there’s something missing in the photograph. What can I do? Well, digital imaging allows me to put the pope standing in there. That makes a great picture. But it’s a lie. We see a lot of trick photography now. I don’t do it because that would mean that I’ve been tricky all my life. I photographed what I saw. A caption could lie, but the photograph would tell the truth.
TR: You insist that you don’t editorialize. But when you covered the civil rights movement or photographed a starving child, didn’t you raise awareness of social problems?
BENSON: I’m getting in the thick of it and photographing what I see. What I see should inform. That’s the way I’ve always worked. What I photographed on one day during the terrible Watts riots in 1965 was a dead man and the policeman who’d just shot him. There’s something truculent about the policeman, who’s not too sure about himself. The policeman said to me, “There’s a curfew, and that means you.” That’s not trick photography. That happened in Los Angeles. That is what I saw on that day.
TR: What advice can you offer to aspiring photographers?
BENSON: I always tell them to buy a guitar. [laughs] And then I tell them how I started. They should learn the darkroom techniques with the chemicals. Photograph weddings and get a job with a local newspaper, because you need the discipline. Then I would make them repeat all that.
TR: Has Harry Benson ever asked a subject to say cheese?
BENSON: I’ve never asked anyone to say cheese. I just tell the subject to smile. The reason is that people like people who smile. Even if their smile is awful, people are still better smiling. Nixon didn’t have a good smile, but he was better smiling. Bill Clinton looked phony when he smiled, but he was still better smiling. But with the Queen Mother, when she smiled, all you saw was a bunch of terrible teeth. And the photographers would say, “I hope she doesn’t smile.”
TR: Of all the photographs you’ve taken, do you have a favorite?
BENSON: Oh, that one there. [points to a large print of the Beatles’ pillow fight] That is my best photograph. With every photographer, it comes down to one photograph. That doesn’t mean that the photographer didn’t take other good pictures. But it does come down to one. What I’m dealing with there is the Beatles, who are up there with the greatest composers in the history of music. The Beatles’ pillow fight can never happen again. It’s gone. That’s what a good photograph is. And I was coming to America with the Beatles. I never went back.