I was a Vogue contributor in 1974 and Vogue’s Creative Director Alexander Lieberman and Art Director Rochelle Udell insisted I should work with Harry Benson on “The Hollywood Issue.” I hardly knew Harry except that he was a serious LIFE magazine photographer. I was not a big fan of most photographers at that time. I had worked with a lot of “rock and roll” and “sports” cameramen. They were mostly pushy Bush-jacketed thugs who were merely out for “the get” not a real photograph. I also had done some sessions with a few fashion photographers like Richard Avedon who was complicated and vaguely rude.
But Harry was different. He came to every interview alone (no entourage of assistants — no multiple cameras dangling around his neck) and Dressed in a sensational jacket and colorful pocket scarf. No thug here. He looked like a movie star. And believe me, all the movie stars reacted positively as if he was! His high lilting Scottish accent also helped his overall charm.
Harry worked so fast and moved about nonstop — no one knew if he got the shot. He has an innate ability to intuitively “catch” the subject at the perfect moment. No set-ups, no conversation. One and done and gone!
Together we did Warren Beatty, Julie Christie, Goldie Hawn, Suzy Parker, Rona Barrett, Sue Mengers, Gina Rowlands and a few more in less than 4 days. I personally hated celebrity interviewing and I was lousy at it. But having Harry there was terrific since he gave me a lot of the questions and he took the awful edge off the whole awkward moment. He was terrifically generous to me at the time and ended up being the best teacher of journalism I ever had. He had a quick way of summing up a scene and getting to the point — he also was the greatest person to gossip with over a drink when the whole event was finished.
I look upon my Harry Hollywood experience as the induction into a form of writing I knew I could never do. I ended up doing the captions for Harry’s terrific shots and I left Vogue soon after. Of course, Harry went on to become The photographer of America’s popular culture. The man has really recorded our nation’s history. He caught the moments of truth in our time.
Just look at Nancy and Ron Reagan dancing on the cover of Vanity Fair… a metaphor for the benign ’80s — or the Clintons’ “non-kiss” in the hammock with Hillary “on top” of Bill; the Beatles cascading pillow fight; Churchill’s looking momentarily amused at his arrival at Harrows Boys School; a dead and bleeding Bobby Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel, and dear old Donald Trump greedily holding a million dollars seated in his casino’s safe! No set-ups, no hair and makeup — just Harry’s quick “shutter” eye and trigger finger.
And all the while we all thought Harry was our age or younger (today, December 2nd, is his birthday, and a big one at that!). He had no time for ego or even becoming a hardened cynic — after all, he has seen it all and shot it all. He has a delightful humility. He loves to talk about the photo “backstory” but never himself — EVER! I think he saw too many celebrities drown in their own hubris. The truth is, though everyone wants to be his friend, he stays separate as a total professional with huge compassion for the tough loner subjects like Richard Nixon and Bobby Fischer. Benson’s heart is large, but he wants to stay on the sidelines as the “watchful eye” rather than a distant voyeur.
However, it is his wife Gigi who for 50 years has been his “secret sauce” with his business and archives. After all, she was the producer of his successful documentary “Shoot First.” They have two great daughters who live in California and the guy who has shot the world in the end would rather lay on his living room couch with his “significant others” — his two dogs. He even resembles his dachshund’s giant watery eyes.
He still uses the “Fleet Street” speed in shooting today, and I truly think he still “lives to shoot” and that adrenalin has kept him going for 90 years!! Instagram and phone cameras be damned!
Recently while I was in NYC, Harry took a picture of me in front of a Wayne Thiebaud painting of me from 1967. Again, he did it so fast I didn’t think he got a shot at all. Afterwards, while on the street we tried to avoid all the insane biker/messengers buzzing around and people so engrossed in their phones who never look up, he gave me some simple advice – “You have to watch everything – look around you and most of all stay in the moment – be in the moment!”
And then I realized that is Harry Benson’s greatest gift. Being in the moment is how he has always shot pictures, and how he has lived his entire life!