Harry Benson's America

This famed photojournalist tells what it was like to shoot everyone from Richard Nixon to Michael Jackson, and to capture the history of a country that has never ceased to fascinate him.

Harry-Benson-s-America
Harry-Benson-s-America

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Fourth of July parade. Seguin, Texas, 2002.

This famed photojournalist tells what it was like to shoot everyone from Richard Nixon to Michael Jackson, and to capture the history of a country that has never ceased to fascinate him.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Anna Wintour. Paris, France, 1994.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Mia Farrow and Frank Sinatra. Plaza Hotel, New York, New York. 1966.

As a photographer, Harry Benson has always had a simple goal. "I just want to go out and take pictures that people will want to look at," he says. That sense of mission has enabled him to create a long and celebrated career that has taken him from his native Glasgow, Scotland, to the rough-and-tumble Fleet Street newspapers of London and on to America. In 1964 Benson was photographing the Beatles for the London Evening Standard when the band made its first trip to New York. "After that, I

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
George Burns and his cat. Beverly Hills, California, 1992.

If you let someone else impose their point of view, especially the person you're shooting, you're not going to get the picture you want.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Bob Guccione. New York, New York, 1984.

told the paper I wasn't coming back," Benson recalls. Instead, he began covering America. His images captured the nation's crazy-quilt culture, as well as its history during the last half of the 20th century: He traveled through the deep South to document the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s and was in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles the day Robert Kennedy was assassinated; he went to the Midwest to photograph a group of ladies in a small Nebraska town protesting what they said was a lewd movie at a local theater; working for Life, Vanity Fair, People, and other magazines, he also photographed the famous and infamous, from President Richard Nixon to Michael Jackson. This year Benson is bringing out a new book, Harry Benson's America (Harry N. Abrams, $40), a collection of little-known and never-published pictures made during the course of his 40-year stay in this country. John Loengard, the former director of photography at Life magazine and a longtime friend of Benson, says the book reveals a different side of the photographer: "It shows Harry dressed in a way few people see him," says Loengard. "This isn't the formal Benson we expect; he's more dressed down-not exactly informally, but certainly more casual." In the exclusive portfolio here, Benson takes us on a romp through an America that is at once serene and surreal-and totally his own. He talked with American Photo contributing editor Jeffrey Elbies about his career, what America has meant to him, the kind of photography he brought to this country from Fleet Street, and what makes a good picture. "In the end," he says, "that's all you're really after."

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Me, Christmas Day, Glasgow, Scotland, 1936.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Bernice Golden. Belle Glade, Florida, 2003.

Harry, when did you actually begin taking pictures?
When I was a kid I had a box camera, a Coronet Cub, and I took pictures of my pals playing football and things like that. I liked it. I was a terrible student. I could never do anything that bored me, and taking pictures didn't bore me. I became more interested in it after I got out of the Royal Air Force, about 1949. By the way, I wasn't a pilot or anything like that. I was a cook, which is a humiliating thing to be. Oh, the cooks, they were real scum…criminals, all of them.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Police Chief Michael Miller. Belle Glade, Florida, 2003.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Jacqueline Susann. New York, New York.

And how did you become a professional photographer?
I started by shooting weddings. To this day I have a great deal of respect for wedding photographers. I would get up at 4:30 in the morning, go to the High Mass weddings and shoot, go home and develop and prints the pictures, then go back to the receptions and see what I could sell. I was also a holiday camp photographer, taking pictures of people on vacation. Then I started getting work for a local newspaper, and from there I managed to get to London. You know, there's a certain sadness in thinking about all the fun and late nights and street corners I had to wait at in order to get to the point where I'm sitting here talking with you about photography. It's strange. I was just happy to get an assignment from the local paper in Glasgow; I hardly dreamed of getting to London, let alone New York. To get a picture published was a wonderful experience-to think that someone actually bothered to print something you did. That feeling has never left me. I still feel that photography is more of a privilege than a job.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Mobile-home park. Southern California, 1970.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Cyndy, Jerry, Rosie, and Terry Hall (left to right). Central Park, New York, New York, 1978.

Your new book is a very edgy view of America….
I consider that a compliment. Look, the thing you always want as a photographer is to get to the center of a story. As a photographer, you've got to go out to do a story knowing that there is only one point of view that matters-your point of view. If you let someone else impose their point of view, especially the person you're shooting, you're not going to get the picture you want. So I have always had an edge in my photography. It's not a team sport, the way I play it.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Bob Hope. Palm Springs, California, 1998.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Johnny Cochran. Los Angeles, California, 1995.

Is that edge something you brought with you from working on Fleet Street?
Absolutely. Photography is not a genteel business as it's practiced there. You have to be aggressive to go into a place and get close to a subject to get a good picture. One of the hardest things I've ever done is to go into a restaurant to get a picture of a famous gentleman with his new girlfriend. Then you have to get out again. And at an English daily newspaper, if you screwed up and missed a photo, you'd get a call at about 11:00 at night, and it wasn't pleasant. So I learned that you always have to come back with a picture. But the competitiveness wasn't just about the job. It was also about the pride of being a photographer, the love of it.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Edith Bouvier Beale. Long Island, New York, 1972.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Johnny and Ricky Carson. Lubbock, Texas, 1970.

Growing up in Scotland, what was your image of America?
It came from the movies. My mother would take me to the movies all the time when I was five or six. She told me not to tell my father, because he wouldn't have liked the idea. For me America was always an exciting place, and it still is. Later, during World War II, I saw American and Canadian soldiers stationed nearby. I'd never seen a black man until then. When I lived in Glasgow, a distant relative sent us a brochure showing America's national parks. And I always remember that one page said, "Utah, a land of endless scenic discovery." And there were these beautiful color pictures of mountains and Indians. And it was just breathtaking. And that was America to me.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Caroline and John F. Kennedy, Jr. Boston, Massachusetts, 1984.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Jose Williams. Memphis, Tennesee, 1968.

There is an aspect of photography that is about recording history.
You look at famous pictures-the photographs of Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin at Yalta, for instance-and you think, "How wonderful would it be just to have been there." I used to look at Alfred Eisenstaedt's pictures of the Kennedys and think how wonderful it would be to do that. You'd think, "What could I do if I had that opportunity?" And there is a great responsibility that goes with that idea. Because you're recording history, you have to succeed. There is no other option. You have to get a good picture, because it's history you're recording; you don't get another chance at it.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Housewives. Chadron, Nebraska, 1969.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Housewives. Chadron, Nebraska, 1969.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Dr. Henry Kissinger. New York, New York, 2003.

So each photograph is a challenge….
It's a crisis that I'm after in terms of motivation for taking a picture. Each photograph is a crisis, and you have to succeed.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Mother with child. Beaufort, South Carolina, 1965.

Of all the stories you've done in America, is there one you're most proud of?
Probably the Civil Rights movement. I'm very proud and glad that I covered it. And that I got some good pictures to show for it. In fact it's probably the story that I did my best work on. It was a news story, and for me news stories are the top-to cover a news story well, I think, is the top of the heap. Because news can never happen again. That's it…it's over. It's not like you can go back in the studio and try it another way. I'm also pleased with my images of Bobby Kennedy's assassination. Those are always the stories you fall back on, when you think, "Maybe I'm not so good," then you can think of these stories and say, "Well, I did my job."

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Christopher Reeve. Pound Ridge, New York, 1998.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Man with flag. Washington, D.C., 1971.

Even your portraiture is set in the real world. You don't do much studio work….
The studio has always been foreign territory for me. There are only a few studio pictures in the new book. The thing about studio portraiture, for me, is that those kinds of shots can always be re-created, endlessly, and they are. Everyone does the same kind of shot. For me a good photo can't be repeated. The moment happens, and then it's over.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
World War II veterans. Omaha Beach, Normandy, 1994.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Jackson. Santa Ynez, California, 1993.

There is movement in your pictures; the subjects are engaged in the world.
Rule one of my kind of photography is to keep the subject moving; if you're photographing the president, or some corporate executive, don't have them sit in a chair behind their desk. Because after a few minutes they'll be pushing a button to have their secretary lead you out of the office. That happens.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Donny and Marie Osmond. Ogden, Utah, 1977.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Celia Goldie. Chicago, Illinois, 1998.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Celia Goldie. Chicago, Illinois, 1998.

You've shot lots of presidents. In the new book, there's an amazing shot of President Nixon from 1974, pointing at a globe, as if he's plotting the geo-political future.
That was taken in San Clemente, California. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and Chief of Staff Alexander Haig were in the room, and when I saw the president move toward the globe, I just pushed my way in and shot. I overstepped my boundaries a little-I mean, pushing aside Henry Kissinger! Sometimes the only way to get a picture is to just hold your breath and move in, get close.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
E.B. White. North Brookline, Maine, 1977.

That takes nerve….
You get better at it as you get older. When you're younger it can be easy to be overawed by someone famous. It's a very big problem if you go into a situation like that with assistants. Then you've got a whole production to worry about. I prefer to work alone, or with a single assistant. And I'm not overawed by anyone, really. I'll tell you what I'm looking for as a photographer: I'm looking for the no-man's-land between me and my subject-a kind of neutral place where we're equal. I'm not going in to become friends with my subject. Who said I was ever going to be their friend just because I'm taking their picture? I do get on with certain people, but it's not because I go in to be their friend; it's because I go in to do my job, and not encroach on their friendship. I've been asked to stay for dinner by most people I've photographed. But I still keep my distance.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
President Dwight David Eisenhower. Palm Springs, California, 1965.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
President Richard M. Nixon. San Clemente, California, 1974.

The technology of cameras has come a long way since you got started. Do you use a digital camera now?
Yes, I've got a Canon EOS 1D Mark II digital SLR, and it's an incredible camera. And I think, 'What a lot of pictures I didn't get that I might have gotten with this camera.' Then again, I can say there are a lot of pictures I wouldn't have gotten if I'd been shooting with that camera. Its bulkiness and weight would have prevented me from doing what I did with a smaller camera, which was to stay mobile. The Iraq war was photographed largely with digital cameras, but you haven't seen better pictures come out of there than the images of Vietnam shot by Larry Burrows. And when your camera costs around $8,000, you're not apt to want to bang it about. Today cameras are more like instruments than tools.

Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Ethel Kennedy and family. McLean, Virginia, 1988.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
American cemetery. Colleville-sur-Mer, France, 1994.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Pat Buckley with her pekinese, Foo. New York, New York, 1977.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Peg Ogonowski and her daughter, Laura. Dracut, Massachusetts, 2002.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Fourth of July parade. Seguin, Texas, 2002.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Shirley Temple Black and granddaughter Teresa Falaschi. Woodside, California, 1988.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Charles "Sonny" Liston. Lewiston, Maine, 1965.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Debra Grzelak and Neal Lavro. Staten Island Ferry, New York, New York, 2002.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
Louise Cowell Bundy. Seattle, Washington, 1989.
Photo: Harry Benson. All Rights Reserved.
William F. Buckley, Jr. New York, New York. 1988.

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