HARRY BENSON CBE: A Celebrity Among Photographers
By Bill Dobbins
“A great photograph can never happen again.”
Harry Benson CBE (Commander of the Order of the British Empire, awarded by Queen Elizabeth for service to photography) is a Scottish-born photographer whose lifetime achievements as a photojournalist and shooter of portraits and celebrities is virtually unmatched among his peers. Much like Annie Leibovitz is regarded today, Benson himself became such a celebrity and so trusted by his subjects that he was able to photograph many big-time celebrities that others simply didn’t have access to.
In addition to his obvious talents, Benson was also very much the right person at the right place and right time. He came along at a time when picture magazines were at their zenith and became one of the most prolific and successful of photojournalists.
There was a time – before the Internet and cable TV, before television became so pervasive in our lives – in which picture magazines were a major source of information about what the world was like and what it looked like.
Publisher Henry Luce bought Life Magazine in 1936 and used it to create a window on the world for readers. It faced competition from Look Magazine starting in 1937. During the peak of magazines that told stories and used photos to illustrate them millions read publications that included Vanity Fair, The New York, Colliers and then more more recent magazines like People and US. This all began in the late 1800s when techniques were developed to publish quality, color images in magazines and continues to this day, although print publication of photos is no longer as preeminent as it was.
“Photographers keep the image of celebrities alive”
Benson attributes much of his success to the fact that he is simply ALWAYS on the lookout for opportunities to shoot photos. “A great picture can happen at any time,” he says. “Opportunity in my business comes up on you like an express train. When something happens you have to be ready. But I take making photos seriously – what I’m shooting is part of history.”
Work always came first for Harry Benson, members of his family will attest. Christmas, birthdays or whatever – when a job came up giving him the opportunity for interesting photos he packed up his cameras and was gone.
Harry Benson has photographed countless celebrities, politicians, actors and musicians but is especially famous for having spent time with and photographed the Beatles in 1964. Benson actually traveled with the group on their first trip to New York and developed an intimacy with the group that allowed him to shoot John, Paul, George and Ringo at their most unguarded. His images of the Beatles engaged in a pillow fight are among the more memorable in the history of celebrity photography.
“I actually didn’t want to do that job,” Harry Benson explains. “I was planning to go to Africa as a serious photojournalist. But my editor assigned this job to me because he said the other photographer was ugly and you couldn’t be ugly around the Beatles.”
“But once I heard their music,” he adds, “I knew I was on the right story.”
Benson is best known for candid images of people in motion, capturing the moment, the unexpected, revealing unexpected realities. He is, of course, a technical master of photography. But while there are many photographers who excel in the studio, creating and lighting sets and posing subjects with graphic excellence, he prefers to let reality unfold around him and use his eye and judgement to let him know the proper moment and angle to make an exposure.
“It’s hard to describe what makes a photograph iconic –
but you know it when you see it.”
“I am particularly interested in photographing celebrities who have a reputation for being reclusive,” Harry Benson explains. “When you know less about people it is all the more interesting to find out more – individuals like chest champion Bobby Fisher or Johnny Carson. It often takes more effort but it’s worth it.”
Harry Benson talking about making photos sounds a lot like what “decisive moment” Henri Cartier-Bresson seems to have believed. “A good photograph is unique and can’t be duplicated, can’t happen again. It represents one moment in life, in history. Once the moment is gone it is gone forever.”
Benson says his job as a photographer is not to editorialize but simply capture the reality of a person living a real life, behind and beyond the facade that most try to erect to protect themselves. Hence the Beatles having a pillow fight. Or the idea of photographing the Pope in bed reading the sports pages – which Benson has never done but would do so if given the opportunity.
“My intention is to be an ‘honest’ photographer,” Benson adds. Recording what philosopher Immanuel Kant would call the “ding an such” – the thing itself. What happened, the way it happened, what it felt like and looked like if you were there. Journalism done using photography.
One key to Harry Benson’s career as a photographer is perhaps his beginnings as a London Fleet street photojournalist working in an insanely competitive environment, with few rules or boundaries, in which you stood or fell by the success of your last photo story and needed to be willing to do whatever it took to get the picture. This was far removed from being a famous photographer, coming in with all the prestige of magazines like Life behind you, traveling the world and shooting celebrities and historic events. Actually, his background in being so highly competitive sometimes gave Harry Benson the advantage of being something of a shark in a world of goldfish when it came to working in more genteel and benign circumstances.
Because Harry Benson works at capturing reality as it happens, taking advantage of opportunity, he has always been aware that his efforts are not always going to be successful. He knows he is bound to make mistakes and sometimes not even learning from those mistakes as he should. But he believes in persevering no matter what, dealing with obstacles with failure, get getting back up to keep on going. It is partially this attitude that has let him continue his career for so many years in spite of many more ups downs along the way.
In terms of dealing with movie stars, presidents, rock stars and other celebrities Harry Benson seems to have had a secret weapon – in addition to his excellent track record and portfolio of classic shots: his charm. Benson seems to come across so agreeably to his subjects that they like having him around and are all the more willing to cooperate when he requests they participate in different and unexpected kinds of images. At the same time, he is able to lay back and stay unobtrusive to the point where people forget he is there taking their photo.
As in many aspects of life, personality can often make a huge difference in how things turn out.
“Harry Benson has the ability to charm snakes out of a tree.”
Andre Leon Talley
As agreeable as he can be, there is one aspect of photography where Harry Benson is adamant and uncooperative. He doesn’t give picture approval to ANYONE. He talks about how Bruce Willis once demanded photo approval after a Benson photo session. But the photographer found a way around this – he just didn’t show up at the meeting where this was supposed to happen. He also once photographed Oprah Winfrey and her father and Oprah offered to buy the image so it wouldn’t be published. Benson published it.
Harry Benson has gotten a lot of recognition and acclaim over the course of his long career. He has won a host of awards. He has worked with the best magazines, photographed some of the most interesting people in the world, traveled and made a very good living. And he has continued to be productive as he has grown older, having the idea that “retirement” means nothing when you are already doing what you most love in the world.
But Harry Benson is getting even more accolades nowadays since a documentary on his life and career has been released to theaters and online. HARRY BENSON Shoot First is a fascinating look at Benson’s career and, along the way, a journey through the history and culture of which he has been a part. Watching this film it become clear that Benson is probably the photographer that most of the rest of us always wanted to be – to have those kinds of opportunities, meet such fascinating people, to be where history was being made at the time it was being made.
Here is the trailer for Harry Benson shoot first.
HARRY BENSON: SHOOT FIRST is available now On Demand, on iTunes and on Amazon and will be on Netflix in April.
The review in the NY Times thinks the movie is “too worshipful.” But I suspect the reviewer is not a photographer who has tried to do the things Harry Benson has done, understands how difficult this is or how rare this level of achievement actually is. We are rarely accused of being too worshipful when we honor and admire Olympic Gold Medal Winners, virtuoso musicians, Nobel Prize winner scientists or amazing humanitarians who make life better for millions. Great photographers give us the means of looking at ourselves and our times and in fact teach us HOW to look in a more significant and meaningful way. The mechanical and technical nature of photography has always caused some people to denigrate its potential and this might be even more true now that we are in the digital age.
But in fact photographers may use a camera as a tool but cameras don’t shoot photos – the eye and the mind of a photographer do. Just as a hammer and saw don’t build houses, that requires a carpenter with knowledge and experience. With thousand of photographers shooting millions of images (nowadays, BILLIONS!) there is a reason why only a few of them produce the kind of body of work of a Harry Benson. When we see a quarterback like Tom Brady perform on the field, see Tiger Woods at his best or realize the capabilities of physicists like Stephen Hawking we should accept the idea that there is something called TALENT that is beyond understanding and can’t be developed simply by training and experience.
Great sports figures have great talent. So do outstanding scientists and the best in almost any field you can name. That includes artists. And photographers. And Harry Benson.
“If I don’t take a photograph I’ve made a terrible mistake.”
HARRY BENSON WEBSITE:
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books:
The Women: Photographs of The Top Female Bodybuilders (Artisan)
Modern Amazons (Tashen)
BILL DOBBINS PHOTOGRAPHY
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