Harry Benson: Persons of Interest — a spectacular exhibition in Newport of 60 iconic works

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Board member Elizabeth Leatherman, Exhibit Curator Sam Bolton, Prof. Leora Maltz-Leca, Executive Director of the Library Benedict Leca, Allison Ingalsbe, Chairman of the Board Dan Prentiss, Gigi, Harry, Jessica Hagan, Kerry Kennedy with her dog Bellini. The Beatles and Ali are on one wall while Dolly Parton looks over on the other wall. Photo: Jonathan Delano.

Up in Newport, Rhode Island, the Redwood Library   the oldest library in America is celebrating its 275th anniversary this year. And to celebrate they are showing an exclusive photography retrospective exhibition, Harry Benson: Persons of Interest, at the lib until mid October.

The opening reception on June 30th drew a huge crowd of Newport’s art lovers as well as friends of Harry’s and Gigi’s. The talented photographer Sam Bolton, who lives in Newport, curated the exhibition and designed the interior of the glass cases using Harry’s magazine covers and letters from first ladies including Jackie Kennedy and were a terrific addition to the exhibition.

The invite to the opening of HARRY BENSON PERSONS OF INTEREST at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, RI.
Arriving at the Redwood Library and Athenaeum in Newport, RI.

Benedict Leca, The distinguished Executive Director of the Library — who was born in France, graduated University of Texas Austin, and who co-curated the exhibition with Sam — gave the opening remarks and welcomed the guests. With nearly 40 large-scale photographs drawn from Harry and Gigi’s private collection, the exhibition spans his more than 60-year career working for such publications as Time, Vanity Fair, Paris Match and Life, and yielding a body of work that in its totality cements him as one of the pivotal chroniclers of 20th century modern life.

Leora Maltz-Leca, Benedict’s wife, author, esteemed professor of contemporary art at RISD and mother of 10-year-old twins, moderated a discussion with Harry. Harry was at his best when asked how he was able to photograph so many important people of the 20th century. He paused and thought, and replied in his Scottish brogue, “Well, I’m a genius.” That remark was followed with roars of laughter.

Harry and Prof. Leora Maltz-Leca.
Roars of laughter permeated the room during Harry’s Q & A.

Harry and Gigi’s daughter, Tessa Benson Tooley and her nine-year-old son, Tucker, flew in from London to be there for her dad. Their other daughter, Wendy Benson Landes, was in London and could not be there.

The exhibition was held in the Prince Gallery, a gift of Lisette Prince. Among the guests, photographer/author Caterine Milinaire Cushing and Topsy Taylor, who owns her own island off Newport. Both Caterine and Topsy are Gigi’s old friends who worked at Vogue with her in the ’60s under Diana Vreeland. Harry also knew Caterine, the daughter of the Duchess of Bedford, from London.  Harry’s portrait of Caterine’s at Truman Capote’s Black & White Ball in New York is in the exhibit next to Harry’s portrait of Vreeland.

Harry will always be first remembered as the photographer who documented the Beatles’ 1964 arrival in France and the US. The show serves as a preface to Benson’s forthcoming 18th book, Paul (Taschen, July 2022), which celebrates McCartney’s 80th birthday.

Harry and Gigi Benson in the Prince Gallery.
Harry with a pair of his iconic Beatles images.
Linda Buckley takes in the exhibition.
Along with (l. to r.) Leora Maltz-Leca and Todd Romano and Penelope Green.

The show features an astounding string of the most iconic candids of national trauma: MLK leading a charge against oppression; Ethel Kennedy raising her bloody hand moments after the assassination of her husband and Benson’s friend RFK; Jackie Kennedy and her sister Lee Radziwill in mourning; and a forlorn Richard Nixon at the moment of his resignation. 

Likewise, Harry has photographed every U.S. President since Eisenhower, creating an unparalleled catalog of the rarest glimpses into the extraordinary lives of world leaders. His portraits of Kennedy and de Gaulle, Churchill, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Queen Elizabeth II — all feature in the show.

Harry signs one of his books for Shannon Donnelly.

In the world of entertainment and popular culture he has documented a who’s who — from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson to Andrew Wyeth. Even in portrait close-ups of figures as Ian Fleming or Diana Vreeland — just as in spontaneous snaps bordering on party pics, such as those depicting the range of celebrities who attended Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball, he reveals an unerring eye for detail and framing to capture the “decisive moment” — the flash juncture that fixes an incident as historic. No less than Federico Fellini recognized Harry’s ineffable skill in these exact terms: “[Benson’s work] leaves such an impression of naturality (sic), of natural moment. It is a little magic …”

A handwritten note from Jackie Kennedy thanking Harry for taking such “unbelievably beautiful” pictures of her daughter Caroline’s wedding, “with nothing to eat but one grape the whole day.”
Glass case with Harry’s Civil Rights photographs.

More guests: Allison Kemmerer, Director of the Addison Gallery of American Art in Andover, MA., who will soon host an exhibition of Harry’s ’60s photographs opening in September 2022 continuing through January 2023. Also, Elizabeth and her husband Bill Kahane who have The Audrain Automobile Museum in Newport; Bill and Marie Samuels, who hosted the after-party for a small group of museum trustees and friends.

Kerry Kennedy brought her adorable dog, Bellini, from Hyannis Port for the event. Kerry sang songs of Scotland with Harry to the delight of onlookers, and they danced in front of the photograph of President and Mrs. Reagan dancing that graced the cover of Vanity Fair magazine. That particular issue sold out on the newsstands and saved the magazine from being shuttered by S.I. Newhouse (documented by Tina Brown in her book).

Kerry Kennedy and Harry dance under the Reagans, which graced the cover of Vanity Fair in 1985.

Also attending the spectacular show: Brownie Warburton, Sukey Bolton and Tom Blake, Pamela Taylor Yates, Kim Renk, Eaddo and Peter Kiernan with their photographer daughter Lacy Kiernan; Mimi Forer, Diana Oswald, Chandler Hovey III, Victoria Woodhull, artist Emily Randolph, Leppy McCarthy, Linda Buckley, Palm Beach jewelry designer Cynthia Dillon with her brothers John and Allan and sister Barbara (“a family reunion”); Sherrie Grace, Bill and Elizabeth Leatherman, Joshua Janson, Regis and Sofia de Ramel, Kathy Quinn, Sue Petrovas, Charlie Burns, Paul Miller, Andrea Kass, Toby and Janet Pell, Todd Romano, Esmond Harmsworth, Polly Onet, Norah Diedrick, Bettie Pardee, Kim and John Palmer, Andy and Robin Arkin, Peter and Shannon Reed, Jessica Hagan, Dee and Richard Gordon, Penelope Green, Beverly Little, Maura Smith, Belinda and Walter Kielland.

Brownie Warburton, Eileen Otto, and Harry with daughter Tessa Tooley outside the exhibit.
Harry and Gigi with their friend Caterine Milinaire Cushing.

Harry with Shannon Donnelly.
Bettie Pardee and Redwood Library & Athenaeum executive director, Benedict Leca.
Sofia de Ramel, Georgina Sasson, George Moss, and Regis de Ramel.
Brownie Warburton, Polly Onet, and Isabelle Garnett.
L. to r.: Caterine Milinaire Cushing; Rebecca and Rupert Nesbitt.
President of the Board of the Redwood Library Dan Prentiss and Allison Ingalsbe.
Harry Benson and Toby Pell.
Elizabeth Leatherman, Sam Bolton, Kerry Kennedy, Harry Bolton, Leora Maltz-Leca, Benedict Leca, and Gigi Benson.
Lissette Prince and Redwood Library & Athenaeum executive director, Benedict Leca.
Leora Maltz-Leca and Elizabeth Leatherman.
Polly Onet and Sherri Grace.
Jessica Hagan, Harry and Gigi Benson, and Elizabeth Kahane.
Elizabeth Kahane and Brownie Warburton stand beside Kate Moss.
Eaddo and Lacey Kiernan with Harry.
Amy Hoadley, Harry Benson, and friend.
Shannon Donnelly, Kerry Kennedy, and Harry watch Bellini eye the food.
Barbara Dillon, Linda Buckley, and Cynthia Dillon, with Harry and Gigi.
Harry with Newport artist, decorator, and writer Emily Randolph.

Photographs by David Hansen Photography, Jonathan Delano, and Sam Bolton

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