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March 25th, 2009 by Temple City Tribune
Benson Came to America with the Beatles in 1964
I wanted to meet Harry Benson for many years. My father used to speak of Harry when they were both covering some of the most appalling news stories of the day in the mid to late 1960’s. Harry Benson is a photojournalist and my late father was a writer, a Foreign Correspondent for the Daily Telegraph of London.
I was familiar with Harry’s photography from many years ago when I first started in the newspaper business as a young photographer. And though the Fleet Street days are long gone, they are most certainly not forgotten, thanks to the timeless work of people like Harry Benson.
The soft spoken, white-haired Benson spoke Sunday as part of the Professional Photographers’ of California four- day conference at the Pasadena Civic Center.
Benson uses Canon camera equipment now and was sponsored by Canon USA for this particular trip to Pasadena. Canon Mark IID and Mark IIID digital cameras are Benson’s choice of weapons these days, but for some of the more historic images, long before digital was even a blink in anyone’s eye, a Rolliflex camera was one of Harry’s favorites.
Benson was no stranger to the big story. He was in Los Angeles at the Ambassador Hotel the night Bobby Kennedy was assassinated. Harry was there, on the plane when the Beatles arrived in New York in 1964. Indeed, it seemed he covered everything in the 1960’s, and his images have graced hundreds of magazine covers with iconic moments such as the time the Beatles were having a pillow fight in a Paris Hotel moments after they discovered they had a number 1 hit in the USA. Benson said this was his favorite photograph.
That iconic image, a moment frozen in our collective memories, was featured among other rare images of the Beatles in a book published on the lads from Liverpool available through his website, harrybenson.com
Benson told a crowd Sunday of the time he wanted to photograph the Beatles with Mohamed Ali ( Ali was then know to the world as Cassias Clay), but John Lennon wanted to meet Sonny Liston instead. Benson said he arranged to take them to see Ali anyway after hearing that Liston wasn’t a big fan of the Fab Four. The images Benson made that day, again, are etched in my memory forever – even more so now that I have heard, from the man himself, the story behind those images.
There is another classic image of silver screen legend Greta Garbo that Harry shot while he was aboard a yacht on assignment. When asked how he got that particular shot, Harry said “I’m on this yacht, and there she was… just floating by.”
After the slide show of extraordinary iconic images spanning 5 decades, Benson opened up for some questions.
One of the first questions from the audience was what advice might he give to a young photographer starting out. He quipped “sell your camera and buy a guitar.” After the laughter died down a bit, Benson proceeded to discuss some of the more serious details of the work and how he approached heads of state and celebrities alike with grace, professionalism and kindness – all without getting too close. Benson was as at ease with Richard Nixon as he was with Paul McCartney and John Lennon.
It became quickly apparent to me that his demeanor was also part of his success as a photojournalist. A truly kind and gentle nature comes across well in times of trouble and a sense of calm and charm helps garner trust in those you wish to photograph as well as the gatekeepers who try and protect them from the dreaded press.
I had the opportunity to ask Benson what he thought about newspapers and how the new media touts the demise of the printed page. He said he loved newspapers and thinks that they’ll never go away completely, as some have predicted. He did note however, that the larger dailies are obviously having difficulties with some even folding under the weight of rising expenses and declining ad revenue. But he also noted the irony of such troubles often helping smaller markets like local weekly newspapers. (Ahem..) The big papers just don’t cover any local news any more, according to Benson. So perhaps I needn’t dust off the old guitar just yet.
A recent book Harry Benson: Fifty Years in Pictures (Abrams) is a fantastic chronicle of our turbulent times that Harry was there to see and chronicle. He has covered every president since Eisenhower, the first U.S. casualty in Bosnia, firefights in Kosovo, and September 11. Photographer Bill Eppridge remembers, in a passage from John Loengard’s "What They Saw", a history of the exploits of LIFE magazine’s staff photographers:
"I [was in the press pool] at J.F.K. [airport, and] introduced myself to the photographer next to me. He was Eddie Adams from the Associated Press. I said, ‘If you had your choice, what position would you like to have?’ We both agreed we would want to be right behind the Beatles as they came out of the plane, looking down, across them, over this whole huge mob.
"The plane pulls up to the ramp," Eppridge continues, "and the door opens. A Pan Am stewardess comes off, and out come the four Beatles. Then this character comes out right behind them, and he starts posing them. Eddie and I looked at each other and said, ‘Who is that?’ We had no idea. It was Harry Benson’s first trip to the United States. It’s been going on like that for years. Every time you’d know what the best spot is, who shows up in that spot? Harry Benson."
Working for LIFE and Vanity Fair, as well as countless other magazines and newspapers, Benson has photographed cultural luminaries (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Bill Clinton), scoundrels (CIA double-agent Aldrich Ames, terror-cleric Omar Abdul Rahman) and embattled patriots (TWA hostage Peter Hill, Iran-contra pin-up Oliver North), not to mention Michael Jackson’s Neverland, drug dens in Brooklyn and the Milwaukee Brewers’ dressing room. And Benson shows no signs of slowing down.
As he moved seamlessly from question to question in Pasadena on Sunday, Harry Benson continued showing some of his favorite images, and with each image he offered a comment:
“I liked Nixon, he liked photographers,” or “He was a nice guy, "referring to Ronald Reagan.
“I wanted Hillary to win”, he said when an image of the Clintons appeared, the couple about to kiss as Bill was lying on a hammock.” I wanted her to win ‘cause this photo would have been worth a lot of money,” he joked.
This humble and modest photojournalist was also a friend and colleague of my late father who was known as just "Harry" back on Fleet Street (his real name wa
s Henry Miller). Benson and my father were on many assignments together in the Americas in the mid sixties through the 80’s and shared a drink from time to time after the deadline was met. One can only imagine the great stories these two veterans could tell.
Asked when he plans on retiring, he said “I’m lucky enough to do what I want now. I’m now doing what some people hope to do when they retire. Why should I stop doing what I love?”
When asked what his next assignment was. Benson sheepishly said in soft Glaswegian accent “It’s a secret, I can’t tell you!” “I can, however, tell you that it’s something about art theft.”
I got a good glimpse of Benson’s work ethic Sunday, and that was truly invaluable. I wish I could tell my Dad that I finally met his old friend Harry Benson. Perhaps I already have.
By Terry Miller