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Harry Benson: Bill Blass, New York, 1980

Harry Benson

Bill Blass, New York, 1980

Iconic photographer Harry Benson, who just celebrated his 90th birthday (December 2), took a very fashionable victory stroll (victory strut?) last night at the opening of “Harry Benson: Behind the Scenes,” his latest Staley-Wise Gallery exhibition (through January 20).

Although he is best known for photographing The Beatles (1964’s “The Pillow Fight” ranks in TIME 100 Photos), and as a witness to history in the aftermath of the assassination of Robert Kennedy (1968) — this exhibition shows another fascinating yet lesser known catalog of his reportage work. This prolific lensman’s work has appeared in LIFE, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, and graced over a hundred People covers.

Staley-Wise has been known to showcase Benson’s work often, but not like this. A gallery spokesperson told me that they wanted to mark his nonagenarian status in style with “something a little different.” This collection of photos, including some “newly uncovered negatives with these images” – form a fantastic photojournalism essay of the fashion world in its last half-century past almost to the present.

While there are several examples from the 1960’s (Jean Shrimpton in Bryant Park, 1968; Collen Osbourne, Peggy Moffitt, and Sonia Pugin, New York 1967), or late ’70’s (Emanuel Ungaro with Models, 1977; Karl Lagerfeld and Liz Tilberis, Paris, 1977; Verushka, Giorgio Sant’Angelo, and Ara Gallant, New York, 1977), the mother lode is a concentration from that “golden age of American fashion” – the 1980’s and ’90s. There are also a few photos from 2011-12.

Included here are Halston, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein, Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera, Galanos, Mary McFadden and Donna Karan; in addition to the European greats Yves St. Laurent, Madame Grès, Pierre Cardin, Courrèges, Valentino, Armani, and Vivienne Westwood – mostly like you’ve never seen them before.

A combination of candids and posed photos tell the story of what it was like as the title says “behind the scenes,” backstage as the models are assembling for a runway show; up close and personal with supermodels Beverly Johnson, Cindy Crawford, Kate Moss, and the “Halstonettes.”

There are shots of designers in their workroom; fashion editors and publishers including Diana Vreeland, John Fairchild, Liz Tilberis, Anna Wintour, and André Leon Talley– making you feel like you’re experiencing it right there with them. If you gaze at these photos for a while, you can almost hear the dialogue – they’re that evocative!

Friends, associates, family (wife Gigi who runs his business), two daughters along with Benson’s grandchildren in tow, came out to fete him. Fashion world notables designer Mary McFadden; several fashion models past and present,(including a woman who posed for him when she was 15), photographers Rose Hartman and Firooz Zahedi; documentary filmmakers of Benson’s 2016 “Shoot First” Justin Bare and Matthew Miele, and several familiar-looking socialites also attended.

It was interesting to stand back and just watch the well-earned good cheer and respect that the ever-spry Benson received amongst his peers and well-wishers of varying ages. His remarkable energy was attributed by one attendee (whose uncle worked with Benson back in the day) to being from Glasgow.

“He still has that creative eye – that creative vision,” she remarked. I couldn’t believe he could stand for the two-hour reception – something that I confess is often difficult for those half his age.

A Benson daughter pointed out the aforementioned “Pillow Fight” photo to her young son. The scene: George V Hotel in Paris — taken immediately after John, Paul, Ringo, and George heard that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had hit No. 1 in the US). “That’s one of my favorite photos from grandpa,” she told him. I thought of how weird it must be to have to try to explain the phenomenon of The Beatles to a wee tot in short pants.

Another attendee remarked over how Benson had “captured the heyday of fashion. Look, there’s Christian Lacroix right there!” he said, pointing to the wall photo. While I’m sure it would be nice to hear Benson recount, in his lilting, expletive-laced Scottish accent, the genesis of many of these works, it’s almost not necessary — “every picture tells a story. “Don’t it?” to quote Rod Stewart. A woman photographer told me that she admired Benson’s salty tongue. “I love that he curses,” she said. “It’s so cool.”

Interestingly, when Benson first started out, he had hoped for a “more serious” assignment – a war zone in Africa rather than to America to cover the Fab Four. As fate would have it, he accompanied them to New York for their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, realizing that he was witnessing the British Invasion. “I had come so close to not being there,” he later admitted.

Among his many recognitions, Benson was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (2009), having gone back way back with the Queen. He first photographed Her Majesty in 1957 as she opened a coal mine –50 years later (in 2014) he was commissioned to take her official portrait photograph for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. Fun Fact: Benson has also taken photos of every sitting president since Eisenhower, although his controversial photos of Trump (so far) were pre-presidency. No word on whether his immediate future involves a trip to the White House.

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