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Harry Benson Sharpens His Focus

The venerable lensman discusses his storied career shooting the Beatles, the Kennedys, Hollywood celebrities, fashion designers and more with WWD.

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Harry Benson photographer photography 2013 New York NYC WWD
Harry Benson photographer photography 2013 New York NYC WWD

Even with three upcoming exhibitions of his photography and a documentary chronicling his career, Harry Benson prefers to keep himself out of the picture.

Seated in his apartment on Manhattan’s Upper East Side with his wife Gigi, the venerable lensman explained, “I only like to talk through my photographs. It’s because photographs don’t lie. No, they don’t,” before adding with a laugh, “Well, maybe now they do, with all the digital stuff.”

Having touched down in New York with The Beatles to capture their 1964 American tour, Benson said, “I never really left” (though there was a side trip to Jamaica to shoot James Bond creator Ian Fleming).

His expansive portfolio includes images of every U.S. president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, Queen Elizabeth II, Truman Capote, Roman Polanski, Winston Churchill, Halston, Valentino, Michael Jackson, the famine in Somalia, the Civil Rights Movement and Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. Now, decades after he started photographing fashion, Benson is back at it, with a hand in just-released films for Blue Pony and Jack of Spades.

“Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s” creator Matthew Miele has been interviewing Henry Kissinger, Dan Rather, Alec Baldwin, Carl Bernstein, Patti Davis, Kerry Kennedy, Charlotte Ronson, Donald Trump and others for a documentary about Benson. Their willingness was a bit of a surprise. “You never expect people would do anything for you because once I’m finished photographing people, I’m finished with them. I’m not there as a friend. I don’t want someone calling me up saying later, ‘Oh, be a friend. Please don’t use that picture of me in the bubble bath,’” he said.

Benson will wing it to Sofia, Bulgaria, for the Dec. 5 opening-night party of a show of his work at the Vivacom Art Hall, and in February he will touch down for his first London show at Mallett Antiques’ Ely House. Benson’s photos of the Fab Four having a pillow fight in their suite at the George V in Paris after learning their record was number one in America will go on view in June at the hotel (which is now a Four Seasons).

Recalling that first flight he took to the States with The Beatles, he said as happy as they were, “They were a bit concerned. It was only two months after John F. Kennedy’s assassination. They were saying things like, ‘You have to keep an eye out for the college boys.’”

Four years later, Benson was walking with Robert F. Kennedy when Kennedy was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. “Someone told him to go left. A girl in a boater [hat] screamed and I just knew. And there was Bobby kind of slow-motion slumping to the ground. Then the room goes mad.”

Benson said, “I was thinking, Don’t mess up. Mess up tomorrow. I was thinking, I was made for this. I had worked for The Daily Express — Fleet Street. This is why I came into this business. You photograph what you see, and what you see should inform.”

But the Scottish-born photographer said being embedded with Irish Republican Army paramilitaries — which could have led to his being executed — was one of the real scares he faced. Flying over Cape Horn, Chile, in search of the solo circumnavigator Sir Francis Chichester was another. “Do you think we found him? No. I got a telegram from Frank Spooner at The Daily Express that said, ‘Rebase. The party’s over,’” Benson said. “Party? We were flying practically in an upside-down plane. The waves would practically come up to meet you. And it was one of my big defeats, because I never got him.”

While shooting fashion for WWD and others in the Sixties, Benson did get to be friendly with such designers as Halston and Valentino. Recalling an American Vogue assignment to shoot a new Armani store in New York, Benson recalled, “Ashley Judd was walking about. She was pretty, kind of not saying much. They say Armani can’t speak English. They asked me what I wanted to do, and I didn’t know. I said, ‘It would be good to get Ashley Judd in the store window with no top on with you.’ Armani said, ‘That’s fine.’”

Benson’s friend Joseph DeAcetis (who is also Forbes’ style director) persuaded him to get involved with the Blue Pony and Jack of Spades projects. As for what’s changed, the photographer said, “There was an intimidation in fashion. Here was [Yves] Saint Laurent, who was so important. I would have been better off to just let go [when shooting fashion]. I wish I had done that then,” he said. “Basically, you try not to take boring photos. It is taking the fashion into the streets, which really is what Women’s Wear was all about when I worked there.”

With every intention to keep working, Benson said his philosophy is pretty straightforward. “Don’t get overwrought. I’m respectful and I have always dressed conservatively,” Benson said. “If I’m on the second floor of the White House in a pair of dungarees and a flak jacket, I’m not going anywhere. I always wore a suit, and it gave me pockets to carry my lenses. I tell photographers today, ‘I wouldn’t let you in my house — never mind the White House.’”