Harry Benson is a renowned journalistic photographer whose pictures have graced the covers of many magazines and are found in many books, museum collections, galleries. With an unprecedented access to some of the most popular artists of our time including intriguing characters from all walks of life and politicians that have shaped the lives of people, he has recorded some of the most decisive moments of recent history. In a career that spans over six decades, Benson has taken photographs of the Beatles during the band's most important moments of its history and its flight to global and enduring stardom. He has marched with Martin Luther King during the Civil Rights Movement, he was present during the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, he is the only photographer that has taken photographs of 12 US presidents, a plethora of Hollywood actors and sportsmen, including famous recluses such as singer Michael Jackson and chess genius Bobby Fischer, to name but a few. The list goes on endlessly. Simply put he and his trusted camera were at the right place at the right time.
I spoke to Benson about the recently reissued book with photographs about the Beatles by Taschen. Again, with an unprecedented access to the Beatles, he witnessed their success, mischief, friendships, glamour, the famed Ed Sullivan show, the pillow fights, the encounter with Cassius Clay and the hysteria that surrounded them in the shape of Beatlemania. Further, his photographs evidenced their work on the set of A Hard Day's Night and the infamous tour in '66 after Lennon's remark about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus. Not only that, during the conversation Benson mentioned that he visited my city of Skopje during the war in former Yugoslavia as he was reporting about the war in Bosnia. Because of his achievements he has received many awards and in 2009 he was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for service to photography and in 2017 he received the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Center of Photography.
All About Jazz: When looking back at your work, there are glossy celebrity portraits and harsh photojournalism in equal measure. From your viewpoint what is the role of the photographer?
Harry Benson: My role was always to photograph what I see and what you see should inform. That is the purpose of my camera and you've got be healthy. That was important. I was not a rock and roll photographer. I took photographs of the Beatles and a few others, but I didn't do many rock and roll stories. Although I did the USA for Africa.
AAJ: But you have an instinct of being present at those moments of historical significance.
HB: Thank you. Sometimes it's good and sometimes it's not so good. If you are walking you've got to have your wits about you and don't think too much of your subject's feelings. Think more of your own because I want to have a job. if you do a good job you'll have a job. It's survival. I'm lucky I had a camera to do it. A camera will do what you tell it. It's important not to think too much about your subject like if I'm gonna photograph a president you might start reading things about him. You would have to meet him being natural and not so wound up. That doesn't mean you wouldn't wind up, but it means that you don't want to let them know that you are nervous.
AAJ: Would you agree with me that being lucky actually means being well prepared for any situation that might arise?
HB: Absolutely! You are hoping that you will get this picture you might have in mind or where you are going to take them. The thing about people is that you got to keep them moving. Once you sit them in that chair and you start doing fancy portraits you've lost them. I want to move people around the room and outside so they don't get bored. That's vital. That's very important.
AAJ: A lot of people have welcomed you into their inner circle's inner sanctum (from the Beatles to Bobby Kennedy's family from Bobby Fischer to Michael Jackson). Do you think your very personal approach is why many people like working with you?
HB: I'm quick and that's important. There are people that are like me that are just passing through. If I'm doing it for a good magazine, like Life magazine, you've got to do this to get some publicity because we are keeping the image alive.
AAJ: Well, the photographers are at the forefront of how the public perceives the person/subject.
HB: Yes, we are keeping their image alive. We are presenting them as interesting people. That is why I don't like pictures in studios because studio pictures can be sterile. You can go back five minutes and make it better. And you can go back five months and still make it better. That doesn't mean I haven't taken studio pictures. I've done hundreds of fronts covers of people. I do them. Do I light them? No, not really. It's because the studios don't have any spontaneity in them. They are not real. Because of all the makeup and lighting -there's always the same lighting in it. It's all bullshit.
AAJ: So, what brought you and the Beatles together for the first time in early 1964?
HB: I wasn't going on a story. I was going to Africa on a story on independence. It was a much bigger story and was told one night we want you to go to Paris with the Beatles. I told them where I was going and took a vaccine for cholera, yellow fever -all these things. And I was leaving in the morning and they understood and they said: "Ok, Harry, go to Africa." I hung up the phone and in five minutes the phone went and it was the night picture editor who said" "The editor said you are going to Paris with the Beatles in the morning."
AAJ: So what were your first impressions of the band? What appealed to you about them?
HB: What appealed to me about them, and you can't get passed around that, is that the music was so good. I wasn't too happy that I was going. I wasn't upset because you did what you were told. They'll ask me to do this job and I'll do my best. I knew who they were very much, but they hadn't broken out yet. They broke out a few days later in Paris when their song landed on a No1 spot. Anyway, in Paris, before they started I went back to my car for a piece of equipment. When I came back The Beatles had started out and it was "Close your eyes and I'll kiss you" -It was a great song and I said to myself "I'm on the right story." I'm glad I didn't go to Africa because they are terrific. We got on well. And regarding the leader of the Beatles, someday I thought was Paul, someday I thought it was John. George played a great part but Ringo didn't count, meaning he didn't think he was very good at playing the drums.
AAJ: Were they critical of your images of them? Did they have any ideas about how they wanted to be photographed?
HB: No, I was with them in the room when they finished the concert in Paris, I was in the bedroom with them -the suit. And one of the Beatles happened to mention that there was a pillow fight they had the other night. Naturally, my ears went towards "Now, that's a good picture" and I was waiting. Anyway, two nights later I'm back in the room, the Beatles were already told they are No1 in America with "I Wanna Hold Your Hand." Brian Epstein had just told them. They were happy. I said: "How about a pillow fight"? And, they all agreed except for John, who thought it was childish. They all agreed with him. But then, Paul was having a drink or something and John slipped behind him and hit him with a pillow. And that was it, they had a pillow fight.
AAJ: I read somewhere that the pillow fight was actually your favorite photograph you have ever taken.
HB: Yes, it's because the Beatles are still with us. The music is still terrific. And you are asking me questions because the Beatles are still with us. It's not some group that vanished 20 or 30 years ago. They are still around and I'm happy I took the best picture of them. Because it has a movement in the picture.
AAJ: It expressed something innocent and mischievous at the same time. It's an unstaged moment of joy.
HB: Yes, none of these pictures were staged. I photographed them having great fun.
AAJ: The whole book actually shows a great closeness between the photographer and the band. You were let in their inner circle.
You force yourself into it. They are wearing their pajamas and are going to bed. But I don't get close to people. I run into Paul McCartney occasionally, we shake hands, we talk for a bit, but I'm not close friends with any celebrity and I want it that way because I'm more objective by keeping a distance.
AAJ: But how did you win their trust both of their managers, the band's trust? There are photographs of them composing a song in your presence, they took you on the road with them when you witnessed some of their most crucial moments in their history.
HB: They were oh so young and that was also a good newspaper. We were getting them something, we were keeping their image alive. It's like being friendly and a nice guy with them for a few hours. You've got to get as close and quick as you can. And you are doing this for a good magazine or whatever. You are also trying to make a living the best you can. It's something you've been doing and you've got to do it well. It's something that has a fun attached but is deadly serious that you get good pictures. And if people do something stupid and you are in pictures, you must photograph it. You are not there as another part of their career. You are there to record a moment. And I wouldn't say a historical, as now it is historical because it was a long time ago. But, at the time, you were trying to get better pictures than your opposition. You want to do a better job than the other photographers you are gonna be judged against. There is a competitive thing in it. If you've got somebody who is that important don't let them away too easily. When they start getting nice and getting to like you that's the time when you start saying take your clothes off and jump in the lake, if you know what I mean. Push it. Because it won't happen again. On the other hand, you will have the best picture of them of anybody ever.
AAJ: What is your fondest memory of the band?
HB: Definitely, I was happy when with the pillow fight happened. I was also told that night I would go to America. They were going to America and I was going with them. I flew on the plane with them in New York, way down there, way down to Miami where we went swimming in the sea. But all the time I was working. I wasn't saying I'm putting the camera away now. That is the last thing I would put away.
AAJ: So you weren't directing them at all?
HB: No, I was always staying close, but trying not to be a boring person. I was young then as well. The same applies now what applies then.
AAJ: The laws of making a good photograph are the same as back then.
HB: Sure, that's the same.
AAJ: When you went through your archives for this book were there any surprises?
HB: Yes, there were. I'll tell you what the surprise was.The pictures were so good. I know that this sounds so self-serving, but they were well photographed. It was 62 years ago and the equipment wasn't that good as it is now.
AAJ: Yes, but those photographs still have a distinct character.
HB: The picture of the pillow fight and a number of them were taken with a Rolleiflex and I say thank God for that because I didn't have an assistant which I didn't really use anyway. The Rolleiflex was a tremendous camera and I wish I had used it more often.
AAJ: What was your relationship with the band members after the band disbanded?
HB: Nothing. If I ran into them, then fine. But I did go out my way. I saw Paul about a month ago and we braced. And that's all. But that's the same with everybody I photographed. I photographed the last 12 US presidents.
AAJ: Were you shocked when you met Mark Chapman in prison and when he apologized to you for "killing your friend" John Lennon?
HB: I knew what to expect but I also wanted him to show a bit of madness in him. And he did, as he was jumping around the room and he pointed his finger at his head as if it was a gun. I told him what a terrible thing he did and he knew it. I asked him why did he do it? He said John Lennon has been haunting me all my life.
AAJ: To me, he is what is now widespread in the world i.e. being a celebrity at all costs.
HB: Yes, that's right. There are a lot of people where you would see that when you get close to them. Chapman wanted an autograph.
AAJ: He was on a shooting rampage and David Bowie was next on his list.
HB: Bowie was lucky.
AAJ: Sometimes your work is very disturbing. You happen to photograph Bobby Kennedy's assassination and the chaos that followed in the aftermath, you went to places such as Bosnia, Northern Ireland. Do you think that art should have any boundaries between what should be presented or not?
HB: I'll go back when I said to you at the beginning, I was not a rock and roll photographer. I was a news photographer. Doing Bosnia, Bobby's assassination, starvation, this and that, they all need a camera and photographs don't lie. They don't. When I'm talking to you I'm talking through my photographs. What always got my reference of what happened, of what it was like, what it smelled like. No, I don't think there are any boundaries. Even the photographs of Bobby's assassination. I just took one picture and then I left. I couldn't do it because I liked him. And I just kept working. And you know what? I have dinner with Ethel Kennedy at least once a year and I have dinners with his daughter, Carry Kennedy. They know exactly who I am. When something awful happens this is basically why you've been sent. Because you will do what is necessary.
People have said to me about the Kennedy assassination they would say "Did you have any nightmares? Because I have said that often I wake up at night thinking about it. I don't have nightmares as someone says. I said I would have nightmares if I hadn't taken that photograph. I knew it was going to be hard, I knew it was gonna be awful. I that knew 6 people had been shot around me when I was changing film. You just have to do it. That's all.
AAJ: The end of the '60s was a strenuous period in the US and your camera also witnessed the struggles of the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King's led marches which clashed with the police.
HB: That was awful. That was down in Mississippi. The '60s was when America, to me, was having a nervous breakdown. Martin Luther King, Jack Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy were assassinated. It was the end of the civil rights. People were burning the cities.
AAJ: What is the common thread between artists and politicians, luminaries, protestors that you have taken photographs of?
HB: What was happening was everyone worked for peace. Although I did a thing with the Ku Klux Klan and I'll tell you nobody wants to pass this way unnoticed. They don't. They want to go down with them having done something in their life whether running for a president or something else. I'm happy to go out and photograph what I see, to get close to people and then leave them. I don't want a phone call from them. If I get a phone call from someone like Lennon or McCartney it would be "Oh Harry please don't use that picture of me hitting John." I never answer my phone. That goes for anybody. Until the magazine had used it, then I'll speak to them. I don't go out to debunk people. None of my pictures are cheap shots.