Harry Benson Paul Whyte NC1A

Who is he?

Harry James Benson is a Scottish photographer who was born here in Glasgow. His photographs of celebrities have been published in magazines such as Life, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and he has took over 100 cover photos for People magazine

When and where did he work?

Born in Knightswood in 1929, Harry Benson grew up in Glasgow in the aftermath of World War Two. His career as a photographer spans more than fifty years. Harry first worked for the Hamilton Advertiser in 1954 before moving to London to work for the Daily Sketch and then the Daily Express.

His most notable work comes from the 1964 tour that he did with The Beatles where one of his most recognizable images took place which shows the band in a gleeful pillow fight in a hotel room in Paris, originally Benson didn't want to meet The Beatles as he had plans to cover a news story in Africa but was told he had no choice in the matter but once he met the band and heard them play he had no desire to leave.

The Beatles, Paris, France, 1964: “It was 3am after a concert at the Olympia in Paris in January 1964. They had so much pent-up energy after a performance, and they really couldn’t go out because they would be mobbed. So we were sitting around talking and drinking. Their manager, Brian Epstein, burst into their suite at the Hotel George V to tell them “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was No. 1 on the American charts, which meant they were going to America to be on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ … I heard the Beatles 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. At first they said OK, but then John said, no, it would make them look silly. Then John slipped up behind Paul and hit him over the head with a pillow, spilling his drink, and that started it.” Harry Benson, Photographer

Some more notable shots

Robert Kennedy Assassination, 1986 / President Richard M. Nixon Resigns, 1974 / Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, 1968

Purpose of his work

He has managed to be in the right place (or the wrong place) on many occasions that allowed him to capture and document some of the most poignant moments in American history such as the assassination of Robert Kennedy being one of the only photographers on scene to capture this shocking moment as well as photographing every U.S. president from Eisenhower to Obama, It is strange to think someone born in Glasgow and left school at the age of 13 can go out and do so much simply by being a photographer. His work is on permanent collection at the Scootish national portrait gallery and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.

An interview with Harry Benson

I managed to find an interesting interview that he did with writer Sara Tasini that gives a good insight into what drove him into photography, how he felt during the job and how he feels about photography today in the modern age.

What first drew you to photography and what keeps you there?

It could have been my father. It could also have been growing up during the war with the excitement of the time, wanting to be part of something. Listening to Sir Winston Churchill’s speeches on the radio made me want to get to the center of what was happening in the world. And I would see photographs in the newspaper that would encourage me to be part of it.
Photography is the easiest thing to keep you motivated. The camera will basically do whatever you want it to do. There is a simplicity and excitement; it doesn’t have to be complicated. You can judge what’s a good picture, what’s a bad picture – don’t take anybody else’s opinion – it’s what you like.

Photographing certain tragic events, for instance the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968, how do you manage to remain focused on getting the picture in the midst of so much chaos and trauma? Does it require a certain amount of emotional detachment?

I kept thinking ‘this is for history, don’t mess up today, mess up tomorrow.’ I’ve always been able to cut myself off. My business is to get photographs and do my job well. My job is not to get emotional about it. I knew Bobby Kennedy, I liked him very much, but my job was to document what was happening for history, and I know he would understand that.

With the advent of the Internet, social media, and the almost instantaneous capture and dissemination of visual images in modern times, how has the job of the photojournalist changed?

Anyone with a cell phone can be a photographer now. It’s amazing, but it hasn’t made photography any better. By getting quicker, it’s gotten worse. A hundred photographs a minute, or whatever, does not make necessarily good photography. To me, the digital color war pictures of today are not as compelling as war photographs taken on film, which is interesting because you can go back and look at pictures of Vietnam and WWII, everything before digital, and to me they’re just better. That is only my opinion, and others will certainly disagree.
Created By
Paul Whyte

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