Harry Benson

Featured image
Harry flipping through one of his latest books, Tivoli Gardens.

A joy it was to interview Harry Benson, the photographer who has spent a lifetime documenting the huge stories, the big-name people as well all the crucial no-name people whose story in pictures can sometimes change a whole perspective. A true son of Glasgow, he came to the States in 1964 to follow the Beatles on their first tour this side of the Atlantic, and his career rocketed from there. He worked as a photojournalist for LIFE magazine (amongst many other magazines) as well as taking portraits of every president from Kennedy to the current George W.  Bush. He has the extraordinary knack of reading a situation so that he can then place himself to get the shot, a kind of instinctive, fearless urge to move in on his subject with perfect timing. If it sounds like hunting, perhaps it is, but in person he is full of warmth and does not take himself seriously for a moment. There is, we sensed, a bloody-minded side to him, which is probably essential if you’re going to make it as a photographer, and he’d be the first to admit it. Such a pity that we can’t replicate his Scottish accent or offer you the perfect cup of tea that we were offered. He’s met and photographed so many incredible people that we could have talked to him all day – he and his lovely wife of 40 years, Gigi, practically had to kick us out.

Are you homesick for Glasgow – do you get there often?

Yeah, I do. I was there last week. I was getting prizes. They gave me a doctorate from the University! I couldn’t get a job there when I was young and now…!

Really. Do you like getting those honors?

Do you know something? It doesn’t mean so much now because most everybody’s dead. My mother, my father.

Did they live to see your success?

They did, but I was too busy to care.

A letter from President Clinton describing Harry as one of the foremost photographers of modern Presidents.

Your father was the curator of Glasgow Zoo – that’s an unusual job. As a kid that must have been quite something.

I hated zoos. I hated seeing the animals caged up. I know that a leopard has got no right being in Glasgow in November … eating a melon. You know what I mean?

Do you love animals?

I’ve always loved animals … and I’m not saying this to make me look good … maybe I am … but I’ve always had trouble with [taking pictures] of animals or children in distress. I do it. In Biafra and in Somalia I did a story on the starvation coming out of the desert, I did it for Life [magazine] and when I saw the little fat babies with the tummies, I had to do it from a distance because I thought it gave them more dignity, but I knew photographers who would deliberately wait until about 4:30 in the afternoon to get the good lighting on them, to make silhouettes of them.

What was it that made you want to live in America?

When I came to America, it was the [time of the] Civil Rights movement, 1968 – the year  that America had its nervous breakdown. Martin Luther King … Kennedy. I was next to Bobby when he was killed.

Do you still have nightmares about that?

No, sometimes I wake up, not screaming but … I go through different things. I have instant recall on it. He just went down, actually quite slowly. It seemed slow.

What was your reaction?

My reaction was ‘Don’t mess up today. This is it. This is what I came into the business for.’

So what were the Beatles like? I have to ask.

Paul was the leader. He was into show business, he liked it.

They seemed easy to talk to …

That was part of their success. And there were no PRs. It wasn’t calculating …  and that said, you can’t get past the music [starts to sing ‘Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you …] It’s wonderful!

Do you think celebrities suffer from being over-managed now?

Oh terrible! They’ve ruined these people.

[Sian] I always loved George. What was he like?

I used to share a room with George on occasion. He was serious. And you could see the tension between them all. Paul had his idea of music, George had his, John certainly had his. They used to talk and say that ‘we’re not going to be jumping about a stage in four years’ time.’ And it was true. They weren’t.

Well, they were each so talented, except for maybe Ringo.

Ringo fitted in.

Gigi serving her superb tea and biscuits.
An oversized poster from The Plaza Ballroom in Glasgow is hung in two sections on the living room wall. Harry’s portrait of Andrew Wyeth sits below.
A photograph of Tivoli Gardens from Harry’s new book leans against the Plaza Ballroom poster in the living room.
The famous Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow photo from the Truman Capote Black and White Ball is against the living room couch.
self portrait of Jules Feiffer was a gift to Harry.
A large, lush terrace surrounds Gigi and Harry’s penthouse apartment.
Oskar taking his mid-morning stroll on the terrace.
Looking west from the terrace.
Oskar making the rounds.
Oskar making the rounds.
Oskar making the rounds.

I read a critical piece from the Washington Post about an exhibition of your photographs including your famous photograph of the Beatles having a pillow fight.

Oh that. What a shit he was! But you want to know something about that? The photographers from the Post got on to him and said that he’d got it all wrong. And they issued the following day a rebuff.

Well, what the critic was saying was that he preferred not to know that they were staged because when he found out, he felt he had been hoodwinked because they looked so spontaneous.

It’s ridiculous.

He also said your photographs were too flattering, especially the ones of famous people.

It’s stupid because there was a Kennedy assassination in there, the Civil Rights [photographs] were there, the IRA, Somalia … they were all … what do you call it? Extraneous stories. If I’m going to photograph President Clinton and he lies down in a hammock, I’m encouraging her [Hillary Clinton] to go and give him a kiss because I could see the whole thing. A photograph doesn’t lie. A caption could lie.

What was your impression of Hillary Clinton?

It was always fine. I remember the last week of them in the White House (everything I say is so self-serving), and I’m gonna photograph her in their last week and she comes out in some garden, and she’s coming out and she starts to smile. And she says ‘Harry, you gave me the best advice before the White House when we were in the Governor’s Mansion.’ (I knew what it was.) And I said ‘What was that?’ and she said ‘Just to keep smiling.’ And I told her if you keep smiling, nobody can read you, nobody can figure you out. And you know, it’s absolutely true. And obviously you like somebody that smiles. People should always smile. Every picture, even if you’ve got no teeth, smile!

How often are you surprised by what comes out rather than the image you thought you had taken?

It’s strange, the older I’ve got, the more insecure I’ve got. I just feel maybe I didn’t push it as far as I could have.

The TV room.
Versions of the Beatles ‘Pillow Fight’ hangs near a portrait of Alexander Solzhenitsyn. (Harry asked him what made him happy and he replied ‘Breathe’ – and Harry took the shot.)
The guest bed covered with ‘The Berlin Kiss’. The photo is about to be shipped to the Holden Luntz Gallery in Palm Beach for an exhibition starting December 22nd.
The TV room. Hanging on the wall is a portrait of Greta Garbo.

Is there anyone left who you still have not photographed but who you would love to do?

No, actually the characters are not good today. There’s only one really I would like to do.

Who’s that?

It’s Putin.

Why’s that?

Because he’s a real character on the scene.

He seems very scary to me.

Well I don’t know. I don’t think so. I think what he’s asking for is ‘Hey wait a minute. We’re a major power, give us some respect.’ I mean what’s the idea of putting missiles in Poland? You know, give me a break. It’s like [the Russians] saying to us ‘Do you mind if we put missiles in the Bahamas?’ We should show him some respect …. and maybe [I would like to photograph] Cheney. Cheney’s interesting.

How would you go about photographing someone like Cheney? He’s a brooding character.

That’s right. Cheney and Bush, and you’ve got to hand it to them, they couldn’t care less what anybody thinks. Because they don’t go to any Washington parties and all the socializing … they all think it’s all shit, you know. They don’t go to the big dinners like Kissinger.

How did you photograph Kissinger? Did you like him?

Yeah I liked him, but he was probably a war criminal.

That’s the hard thing isn’t it, there’s the personal impression and then the things they actually do.

Yeah, Kissinger let me into things. He let me into a lot like during the peace talks in Vietnam, but it’s a dilemma, yes. I liked Reagan because the thing about Reagan was, if he told you a funny story, it actually was funny. There’s nothing worse than a big shot telling you a story which isn’t funny and you have to laugh.

Oskar and Daisy in the living room.
In the living room, Daisy poses in front of a pair of ceramic dogs from Harry’s mother’s attic.
Family photos in a corner of the living room.
Above: The family page from Harry’s new book on Glasgow. Below: The covers of Harry’s two new books: ‘ Harry Benson’s Glasgow, and Tivoli Gardens.

Harry’s first camera.
From left to right: Harry with John and Ringo, grandaughter Mimi Landis with Santa, and Harry with Chelsea and Bill Clinton in Kosovo.

Daisy takes Oskar’s place.

Did you ever photograph Bob Dole, because everyone says he’s really funny?

Yes, but a terrible temper. And so does Bill Clinton … oh terrible! Goes red! Just screaming and red-faced … eyes bulging!

You mean screaming at underlings?

Maybe, but the underling might be the Secretary of State or somebody! I remember I was sitting outside once and he didn’t know I was there and he comes out raging, and he sees me [begins to laugh] and he says ‘Oh Harry, how are you, how are you?’ You know he’s going to go back in and say ‘What the F… are you doing?’ Somebody’s really going to get their ass kicked for that, you know! [everyone’s laughing]. Jimmy Carter was kind of a mean kind of one, you know … ‘I’ll speak to after about this.’ Sometimes you hear a lot, you know with the camera, you’re only about [gestures] here, and you hear them mumbling, Nixon and Kissinger ‘He’s a son of a bitch, we’ll have to do something about, you know …’ And then they would stop and they would look at you, and what you must never do is meet their eyes … you’re more like a primate. If you meet their eyes, you’ve had it!

There’s not much sex in your pictures – you’re not a voyeur.

No, I’ve never been able in my life to take a nude.

Is that because you’re too Scottish?

I think it’s Scottish Presbyterian shit. I’ve never been able to do it. It always embarrasses me. It’s so gratuitous, you know … them lying on a couch or something like that …

Hanging above the master bed are a pair of scarves with Harry and Gigi’s zodiac signs. Gigi received them when she worked at Vogue.
Gigi with Oskar and Daisy.
A bookcase in the bedroom chock full of family photos, memorabilia and stacks of books.
Harry’s collection of Toby mugs.
Harry’s collection of Toby mugs.
Harry’s Beatles book in five languages rests against the piano music stand.
A view of the dining room. The table is covered with photos that are being sorted for an upcoming exhibition.
A close-up of the dining room bookcase. The pair of Scottish paintings belonged to Harry’s grandmother. A drawing of Harry (lime green mat) was done by the artist ‘Spain’ during a photo shoot with Halston. Old cameras line the upper shelves.
An array of Harry’s photos including (clockwise from top left): The Beatles ‘Pillow Fight’, Robert Kennedy announcing his candidacy on 5th Avenue, Bosnian soldiers looking for land mines, Coretta Scott King, and Andy Warhol.

What about glamour photography, have you done much of that?

I haven’t put many kind of glamour pictures in my book but I did an awful lot for French Vogue in the 70s and 80s.

Fashion shoots always look so arduous.

That’s what got me, I couldn’t believe it. Boring, just boring. And they all take the same picture. They all copied Helmut Newton. And they’re copying them better because their equipment is better. My pictures could never be copied – this is so self-serving! But no-one can ever get the Beatles having a pillow fight. A good picture is a glimpse.

Is that what you love about it ultimately?

Yes, that’s right. It’s a moment.

What do you like to do when you’re not working?

Basically what I like to do is stay at home and make Daisy’s  [one of his dogs] life hell. Poor baby.

Gigi’s office. A photo of Mick Jagger sits atop the table.
Gigi at work.
Harry continues to charm the interviewers.

Do you like to watch television?

Yes I do. I like to watch sport. I like soccer. I used to play soccer.

Who are your friends, are you friendswith other photographers?

Do you know? I’m a photographer. Photographers are like spiders. They’re loners, do you know what I mean? It’s not a team sport.

Are you a loner just anyway, or are you otherwise sociable?

Oh, it depends on which side of the bed I get up in the morning … but that said, I think I’m pretty sociable.

What does it take to get you to do a job now? Is it money or real interest?

Money’s never been what motivated me. Never. If it was money I would be doing nothing but advertising. And advertising just bores the hell out of me. Someone coming with a diagram. It’s like being at school, my mind goes.

So what kind of jobs do you enjoy?

I like doing jobs that I don’t enjoy. They’re challenging. I do really.

What’s it like being on the other side of the camera, like today, having pictures taken of yourself?

I always look silly … standing there with a stupid look on my face.

Harry signing a book for us in his living room.
Signing away.

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