Wednesday, February 7, 2024. Cold out yesterday but a great sunny day again, with temps predicted to move up a little more too.
Last night in New York, Harry and Gigi Benson hosted along with Barbara Tober, Chris and Grace Meigher, and Yours truly, a screening of Harry Benson; Shoot First at the Museum of Arts and Design (MAD) followed by a dinner at Robert Restaurant (atop MAD) with its spectacular views both day and night of Broadway running north from Columbus Circle up.
We originally saw “Harry Benson; Shoot First” at the Beekman Theatre on 66th and Second Avenue in 2016 when the Cinema Society hosted a premiere screening of the documentary by Matthew Miele and Justin Bare about the life of the great international photographic journalist. Harry was 87 at the time of the original release. Harry is now 95 and has the same energy he had then and that he’s obviously had all his life.
The very entertaining film takes us on one man’s odyssey through the last six or seven (going on eight) decades of celebritydom. Harry has photographed many of the famous faces of these past decades including every President since Eisenhower and many leaders of the world including Queen Elizabeth II. He was also present photographing the world out there including the harsh and unkind one, including the murder of Robert Kennedy (Harry was standing next to RFK when he was shot).
I’ve known Harry’s work – and you probably do too, no matter your age – when he came to America time with The Beatles when they first appeared on Ed Sullivan in 1964. Many of us who were born in the fourth and fifth decades of the 20th century grew up on Ed Sullivan and his Sunday night variety show at 8 o’clock on CBS sponsored by Lincoln-Mercury.
Television was still a special event in American life back then, and Ed Sullivan, already a famous Broadway columnist for the New York Daily News, hosted an old-time show that featured a variety of talent from singers, dancers, Broadway musicals, opera stars, ballet stars, Las Vegas and Borscht Belt comedians. All on the same show. Their talent was timely, and it was one of the ways America kept up with the world of entertainment.
All in one hour you might see a live clip of a current Broadway musical, a five-minute ballet number with Margot Fonteyn and Rudolph Nureyev, famous comedians who were still part of the nightclub circuit; acrobats, ventriloquists, Sophie Tucker, and Elvis Presley. Elvis made the big time, as a legitimate entertainer and rock star, when he first appeared on Ed Sullivan.
But eight years later, when The Beatles came to America, where their song “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” was Number 1 on the charts, it was the major career move for the Fab Four in the world and had a huge affect on the younger generation of America, who soon began adopting their style, including their haircuts (longer).
It not only established them as a major American entertainment act but it also was a life changer to a fifth man in The Beatles party whose career was ignited by the trip. And that was Harry Benson, a Scotsman who as a Fleet Street photojournalist in his early 30s had been assigned the job of following the Beatles on their first American tour.
His photo record of their appearance produced several now classic photos of them.
Glitz, glamour and the celebrated aside, the film gives you a sense of the man and his motivations that created this brilliant career. Harry was born in Glasgow and grew up in a lovely seaside town not far from Glasgow called Troon. He took up the camera at a very young age and after finishing school at age 13, he went out into the world and eventually saw and photographed it all.
Officially finished with school at age 13, he got a job as a messenger boy. And had a camera. The family were working people and their lives were modestly housed, but the father had enough natural imagination to encourage his boy (building him a dark room); the hand of approval.
After watching the film, I was left with a new impression of his celebrated works, and with Harry whom I have known now for a number of years. Along with the famous and glamorous, his archive is rich with a visual and emotional record of the times we’ve been living through.
And with his camera he photographed many scenes about life on this planet including that of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who lay dying only two months before almost to the day, and RFK’s assassin’s gun in Memphis. Then there are the haunting refugee camps in Mogadishu where many children were dying of starvation. He was there with Willy Brandt, then Mayor of Berlin, on the day the Berlin Wall officially cut off the East from the West. Death and despair all around him. And us. Through Harry’s eyes, I was also left with a feeling of deep sadness and the profound sense of injustice we foist on one another, deluding ourselves.
Harry’s whole life has been an adventure following his curiosity with his camera, all over the world, in all kinds of situations. He tweaks and pulls on our memories and nostalgia, feeding our curiosity with his images, from Churchill, to the Queen, to Frank Sinatra along with his then wife Mia Farrow in masks while entering the famous Truman Capote Black and White Ball.
Then there’s the light and the hope in Muhammad Ali in full force of personality and young manhood declaring “I am beautiful!” And he was, indeed he was, in many ways. He was the light for that moment in our history when we were enmeshed in a war of our own choice in Southeast Asia.
And Harry was there too, photographing Viet Cong in South Vietnam. In his natural Everyman approach, he conversed with his Vietnamese subjects who told him that when they spied on American soldiers at their rest in the bush, their curiosity was kept by their music which the Viet Cong loved listening to.
Harry Benson’s photography is the messenger, with a camera instead of a pen (or nowadays, a keyboard). The medium is the message of his life and our lives. Harry has been our messenger for more than 60 years. We have names and explanations for his celebrated images, but beyond forever it is his message about Us. We are them, and they are us. And besides the dramas he’s captured on film, there was always the laughter from other shots he caught. And there was a lot of laughter in the theater last night watching Harry Benson on film last night at the Museum of Arts and Design.