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.
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith
I've always loved jazz ...my mother was a classical pianist and my aunt was a blues singer, who was managed by Clarence Williams (Bessie Smith's producer). As a young boy, they introduced me to people like Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan, and Jimmy Smith. We hung out at my Aunt Kate's Soul Food restaurant in Harlem after the matinees at the Apollo where I listened to their stories. I knew I wanted to be a jazz musician from then on. My mother wanted me to play piano, but my Aunt bought me a guitar. I've been playing ever since.
At my mother's early prompting, I first sang Blue Velvet at my Catholic elementary school...and all the nuns came running in and asked me to sing again, so I knew I must have sounded pretty good. I've been singing ever since.
I met Tony Bennett in Miami and he inspired me to return to New York. He was a great mentor.
The best show I ever attended is mpossible to say, I've seen so many great shows. From Tony Bennett to Pat Martino, Return to Forever to Weather Report...I've seen some great performances.
My advice to new listeners is don't let jazz intimidate you, the music has something for every listener and it is our American gift to the world.