by Simon James
Editor's Note: This article is based on the author's interview with Harry Benson in London on November 18, 2001. The interview was occasioned by the promotional tour of Harry Benson's new book, Harry Benson - Fifty Years in Pictures, published by Harry N. Abrams.
"I knew Bobby Kennedy; I liked him," says Harry Benson, "You always left Bobby wagging your tail. He always gave you pictures. When we were on the road, and we were on the road a lot, we'd go in and have a drink with him. But you're always prepared; and you know this was just a few years after Dallas; and the memory of Dallas was very much there.
I was in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles to cover Bobby's victory speech in the California Primary. He'd just finished his speech. And the quickest way out of a room like that is to follow the candidate. So I'm walking behind him into the kitchens towards the rear exit. And there was quite a crowd of us and then in front of me a girl let out a scream. And I knew this was it. I never heard the shots. And I turned round and Bobby was going down. And I knew. The pictures were taken from the kitchen hot plate, and I just kept saying to myself "a thirtieth at two eight, wide open." And Ethel Kennedy is screaming for him to be given air.
And then somebody threw me off the hot plate. And I was on the ground and there's a thing you always do. And you learn the hard way. As soon as you've taken certain pictures you get them out of your camera fast. Because if a policeman with a gun asks for your film you give it to him. I want to photograph for LIFE magazine; I don't want to die for it. So I was down on the ground taking the film out of the camera and putting it in my sock. By that time Ethel had hold of his hand and was just saying to him "I'm with you, baby. I'm with you." But you could see the blood pouring out of his head. And then I looked around and I realized other people had been shot all around me. After they took his body away a girl came in and placed a campaign boater in the pool of his blood. I never went to the hospital as I knew there was no point."
"Photographers have asked me how I could have taken the pictures I did of Bobby Kennedy's shooting because he was so nice. But I've always said that when I eventually get to where Bobby is he'll have understood, because I was doing my job you know? I often wake up at night, I don't mean having a nightmare, but I go through the whole thing, you know? I've never thought photographers like me are there to editorialize. That's the job of the magazine or newspaper. I'm there to take the photographs: to tell the truth."
Another of Benson's most moving photographs was made only three months earlier and also motivated by a murder, when Martin Luther King's widow Coretta and her four children accompanied his body back from Memphis to Atlanta. Benson, who had previously met King while covering civil rights marches, says it was taken from some distance away with a 2oomm lens as the family came together and paused for an instant in the airplane doorway. Coretta Scott King stands surrounded by darkness at the back of the frame while her children look out into an uncertain future in a grouping that came together for an instant while the rest of the press pack were photographing the coffin coming out of the plane's hold.
Harry Benson is a tall, silver-haired man who looks younger than his 72 years. He says he began as a photographer because he wasn't very good at school. He left when he was 13. "Not," he says, "because the family was poor, my father was the curator of the Glasgow Zoo; but because I was stupid. My point being that I couldn't be taught: I couldn't grasp it." It seems, however, that he was quite capable of teaching himself. His first picture, of a Roe Deer at the zoo, published in the Glasgow Evening Times in 1946. "I'd submitted it months earlier and forgotten all about it. And then I was on the train going home one Saturday and the man sitting beside me had the Evening Times and he opened it up and there was my picture. I tried to get a job on Glasgow papers but they wouldn't have me."
"My first job was on the Hamilton Advertiser, a weekly newspaper. I worked there for four years and it taught me discipline. But the Advertiser was like a dude ranch compared with the work I'd done before that: getting the bus in to Glasgow to photograph early morning weddings, racing home to develop the films and then rushing back to the receptions to sell the still damp prints. While I was working on the Advertiser I got some big ideas about myself. I used to take the night train to London and take my pictures round to the picture editors in Fleet Street. The seventh or eighth time of going down, just after seeing the picture editor on the Daily Sketch, I noticed a little smile on his face. And so I turned to him and said, "There is a chance, isn't there?" And he just nodded.
"Sure enough about two or three days later he called me and asked me to cover a very bad murder. The call came at 5:30 on a miserable winter's evening to tell me to go to a golf course where a girl's body had been found. By the time I got there it was dark so I had a look at the place and went back very early the following day. I chatted to the policeman there, took a couple of pictures not thinking much of them and took them back and transmitted them to London. If I'd arrived with the boys we'd all have been kept 200 yards away, but because it was just me and the one policeman I got close shots of the scene. The pictures turned out to be an exclusive. They made the front pages in London and that was a tremendous help to my career. After that I covered Scotland for the Daily Sketch for a couple of years and then moved to work as a staff photographer on the Sketch in London."
"By 1964 I was working for the Express, and in January I was sent to Paris to cover The Beatles. They were getting there at the time but hadn't quite made it. I still wanted to cover hard news and did all I could to get out of going, but in the end the editor said "You're going," so off I went.
"In the George V Hotel after the show one night The Beatles were all sitting around, and Paul mentioned a pillow fight they'd had a few nights before. I thought "that's an idea for a picture," but I didn't want to tell them then because there was another photographer there from the Daily Mail. I wanted an exclusive shot. I'm always the first in and the last out. No matter how mundane something looks, is, sounds or whatever, there is always a good picture there. Maybe not a truly great picture but there is always something there.
Anyway a couple of nights later I was in the room, and Brian Epstein came in with a cable saying that / Wanna Hold Your Hand had gone to number one in America. It meant that they were going, and they had an offer from the Ed Sullivan Show, which was really big time. Then I suggested the pillow fight for a picture. John Lennon said it was childish and silly. Paul agreed with him. Then Paul's having a drink and John hits him on the head from behind with a pillow and off it went. I got the picture.
When they went to America I was sent with them on the same plane. With The Beatles I did well, which is surprising when you consider the amount of experience I had at the time. The pillow fight was shot on a Rolleiflex with just a bounce flash."
Icon, these days, is a much overused word but it is the only one that really fits Benson's picture of the young, clean cut, dressing gown and pajama clad Beatles having a pillow fight. At the time The Beatles, whose hair covered their ears and came down to their shirt collars, were considered radical. But in hindsight they epitomize the quiet before the storm of the youth generation to come: 1968 was still four years away.
As well as pushing Benson into the mainstream and introducing him to New York, his adopted home, The Beatles have been featured across the breadth of his career. He was in Chicago to photograph Lennon when he made the famous statement about them being "more popular than Jesus." In 1987, eight years after the murder of John Lennon, in New York's Attica Prison it was also Benson who photographed Lennon's killer for a feature in People magazine. Three years later still, in Switzerland after photographing Yoko Ono with her son, Benson was asked to talk to Sean about being with his father in the early years of his fame. Describing Ono as intelligent, intuitive and a loving mother, he reflects now that he realized what Lennon saw in her.
The kiss is another shot that is reprised several times through the new book. It's a Benson staple and he does it well: the Reagans kissing melt into the movie influence of a previous life, while the Clintons seem to have separate agendas: there is love in Hillary's expression but artifice in his. Michael Jackson by contrast, kissing his new wife, Lisa Marie Presley, is rather better made up than she is and careful to control the front of the frame. She adopts a Madonna-like pose with ease, yet Jackson's concentration remains firmly fixed on the camera. The marriage was a brief one.
As well as producing successful pictures, the kiss turns out to be another of the quiet man's strategies for pushing the envelope. Benson continues to discuss his technique in boxing metaphors saying: "If I can get them to kiss, unconsciously I've softened them up. Now I can go somewhere else. It is just like a boxer wearing an opponent down. You are wearing down their guard in a nice kind of way; at least I think it's nice."
"I've always kept a distance between myself and the people I'm photographing. I am always looking for the gray area: the no-man's-land between me and the subject. I am there to take their picture, not to be their friend, and there are boundaries not to be crossed. When people call me after a shoot I never speak to them until it's published. And I never see people on the night before a shoot. I don't want them to start figuring me out. It's something I've learned from experience; I don't want to show them my hand. It's better to go with people when you are prepared for them but they are not prepared for you. I also always try to push the shoot a step further. I'm always watching subjects and as soon as I see them weakening I'll really go after them. I'm not out to debunk them or to hurt them; but I am going after them. It's my job. Whoever said I was their friend? But there again I don't go out to be cruel, and subjects are happy with that I keep that distance as well. I know this was the reason I got on with Nixon and Reagan. I was the friendly face in the enemy camp. There is usually one that they will allow access; and why not me?"
Talking about cameras, Benson says he uses whatever the job demands. He says he presently has no need of digital: "If I need them quickly I take them to the one hour processor." But there is a time for automation as he feels that the Hasselblad is by no means easy to focus in difficult circumstances: "I was in Israel, photographing Ariel Sharon for Vanity Fair, and I started off using the Hasselblad but had to say forget it. It's too slow for dealing with somebody who was getting irritated. So I stopped and got my assistant to get rid of the Hasselblad and I switched to 35mm. And I had one 35mm on manual and another set on program and auto-focus. The manual camera came in about 50 percent, which is usually the way when you are bracketing. The one set on program came in about 99 percent: even the ones you wouldn't expect. It does work."
If anything, Benson seems to be in competition with himself rather than others. Talking again about technique he says, "I don't want to work in one way all the time. Photographically I always want to put the camera in a place where it hasn't been before. I don't like always working within my strengths. I like to work on my weak side. I don't take myself too seriously — but I take what I do seriously; very seriously."
His famous pictures of screen idol Garbo came about entirely by accident when the owner of the next chalet down the beach mentioned in conversation that the legend would be there the following week. Benson canceled his travel arrangements and shot the pictures from a boat, paparazzi style without the knowledge of the camera-shy actress.
On other occasions he moves into the harsher areas of photojournalistic practice. In the mid 19903 he visited the Balkans, shooting in Croatia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Kosovo. In 1993 he was in Somalia, while a decade earlier Benson was in Russian-occupied Afghanistan, photographing Russian prisoners of the Afghan Mujahideen.
When questioned today about what he would like to do next, he says he always wants to try and take the difficult picture. He talks about pictures that move, by which he means he likes his images to tell a story. In the hands of the few real masters, the camera, any camera, becomes a "funnel for the harvest of narrative, or perhaps emotion," and Benson is an undoubted master. In 1961, for example he was sent to Berlin to photograph a wall being built around the Western controlled part of the city. He came back with a piece of history: a close shot of a young East German bricklayer helping to wall in an ideology. However, 28 years later, at the point of the hated wall's removal Benson was there again, on this occasion equipped with the experience of the years, gathering the frustrated rage of a woman, who had lived her entire life in its shadow, as she tried to break a small portion of it down with her bare hands and a rock.
Asked if he's ever taken a deliberately negative or uncomplimentary portrait of a subject, Benson says he really doesn't think he can. He will take a critical picture, but determinedly refuses to take what he describes as a cheap shot. He says, "I like pictures with an edge: that is what I'm looking for. But it is not just that. I want to show a photograph but I want people to think there's something else happening outside the picture: that there is something else going on. I want my subjects to be what they are, not what I think they should be. There comes a time when you are photographing people when the real self starts to emerge. They start to adopt the poses that make them what they are. For instance, a subject might not want to appear weak in front of people; I mean you look at the staff around them and they're all on edge and you know you're getting there. But I will never take the sort of cheap shot where a subject is standing unaware in front of a sign with "loser" or something like that written on it. I want to get as close as I can. I want to get to the inner sanctum. I want to get into the bedroom. The Elizabeth Taylor picture was all right. I didn't have much time with her because she'd just had her head cut in two; but it's a picture I like. It's a very unusual picture for a celebrity but Elizabeth Taylor marches to her own drummer. And I thought she'd do it."
Fifty years is a long time in anybody's career but for Benson it is obvious that the candle has some way yet to burn. When asked if there is one shot he hasn't yet taken, he pauses for a moment, leaning back in the chair and smiling: "I'd like to photograph the Pope; first thing in the morning, having his breakfast in bed, reading the sports pages. Now that would be a great picture."
Benson is there by consent yet it takes more than that. Much of his strategy seems to hang upon an innate understanding of people. And all his subjects, be they idolized or reviled, king or commoner, mannequin or mistress, celebrity or murderer, are afforded an equal respect, good-mannered courtesy and patient charm. And they are equally free to surrender a rather more telling picture than they intend to the quiet man with his finger on the shutter release.