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Park Magazine: Harry Benson, An Extraordinary Life

Ask Harry Benson about his life and he will tell you it’s been extraordinary. “I wouldn’t have wondered from photography. Photography got me around the world…meeting people…Even if I was a millionaire, I couldn’t have had this life. You couldn’t afford it!” he says in his distinctly Scottish brogue.

Vanity Fair, Town & Country, Time, Newsweek, People, Life & Paris Match

As a photojournalist for LIFE magazine from 1970- 2000, his work has also appeared in such publications as Vanity Fair, Town & Country, Time, Newsweek, People and Paris Match. He has literally shot everyone and everything. From Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, (41 and 43), Clinton, and Obama, to Senator Bobby Kennedy - the night he was assassinated. Then there have been all the actors, models, athletes, socialites, and musicians he has photographed -- including The Beatles, with whom he arrived in America on assignment in 1964.

Benson’s honors include a Commander of the Order of the British Empire appointed by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace in 2009; letters from universities such as The Photographic Society and International Center of Photography. A documentary HARRY BENSON, SHOOT FIRST which chronicles his 70-year career was released by Magnolia Pictures in 2016.

Born in Glasgow, Scotland, Benson says he was basically self-taught. Inspired by his father – a zoologist who founded the Calderpark Zoo and loved photography, he took up photography because he was good at art. “At school, I wasn’t a good student, but I was good at art. I was good at art, but not great at art. Good, but not good enough. Photography was a natural way. I studied photography by looking at photographs and basically taking over a camera. A camera will do what you tell it to do,” he says.

He went to work for a local newspaper, Hamilton Advertiser, moving on to the Daily Sketch after his exclusive interviews in prison with Scottish mass murderer Peter Manuel. By 1959, he was working for Lord Beaverbrooks’s Daily Express, and the rest is history. “The thing about photojournalism,” he says, “is that your situation changes every day. Things can change and you have to be quick enough to see it changing and I photographed everything…marching with Dr. Martin Luther King…the Watts Riots… Princess Di and Charles gettin’ married…I would photograph anything and would do any story.”

There were some challenges. “When someone would say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a person, a wonderful person, you’re gonna love them’...I knew I had a problem. Someone who knows how to manipulate you,” he says. “But when they would say someone was terrible, a nasty piece of work, they were fine. People don’t tell you accurately what others are like. You have to find out for yourself. And even then, it doesn’t really throw me off because that is what I’m expecting…But one thing I did learn quickly is flattery. People love flattery. So, put it on with a shovel. Tell them how great they are. People love flattery. No matter who they are. Then you’re on a good level to tell them, I want you to jump into a bath…with a dog or something,” he laughs.

The Beatles

One example was when Benson first photographed The Beatles. It was January 1964 and their manager, Brian Epstein, had just told them their hit single, I Want to Hold Your Hand, had gone to number one on the U.S charts. “I went to pick them up. They were prepared to go out on the street, and I said, ‘no, I want you here.’ I had heard them talking about a pillow fight they had had a few nights before, so I suggested it. I thought it would make a good photo to celebrate. And John Lennon said, “You know, that is stupid. You’re gonna make us look stupid and silly. We don’t want to look stupid.” And the rest agreed, and then he slipped away. And the others, Paul and Ringo, stayed, and then John comes up behind them and banged them in the head with the pillow,” he laughs. “It was great, and I got my photo.”

Persons of interest

Benson met his wife Gigi “while traveling to Houston, Texas, on assignment with Prince Philip who went there to see the Space Center,” says Gigi Benson. Her parents were invited to a gala reception for the prince and brought her along. She was in college at the time at the University of Texas. Harry then invited her to attend a Barbra Streisand concert. “The first concert in Central Park,” according to Gigi, “We sat in the front row.” Once they were married, she didn’t really travel on shoots with Harry. “The wife doesn’t go,” she says. Gigi serves as the archivist for Benson’s work and editor of his books, including “The BEATLES on the ROAD 1964-1966” (Taschen, 2012) and HARRY BENSON: Persons of Interest (powerHouse Books, 2017). Benson’s latest book, “PAUL,” featuring photographs of the legendary Beatle, Paul McCartney, was published in 2022.

The author of twenty-one books, Benson is working on a new one and has enough content for several more. “Our daughters, Wendy and Tessa, would say Harry was always getting up from the dinner table to get on a plane to go someplace far away that we couldn’t even spell!” says Gigi, noting a camera bag on the chair next to him.

A retrospective of Benson’s work, A MOMENT IN TIME: ICONIC IMAGES BY HARRY BENSON, an embodiment of some of the most significant moments captured in the 20th and 21st centuries, was shown this summer at the Southampton Arts Center on Long Island, curated by Sally Martin Katz. There, Harry spoke about his life’s work and told some wonderful anecdotes about the photographs on view. The 60th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America, and appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” will take place on February 7th and 9th, 2024, respectively. Benson plans to release some limited edition prints to commemorate that extraordinary time.

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