INTERVIEWED BY JESSE PEARSON
Harry Benson has taken some of the most recognizable and iconic portraits of the 20th century. After getting his start on Fleet Street in London, working in the daily melee known as Britain’s newspaper industry, he photographed everyone from the Beatles to Muhammad Ali to Martin Luther King Jr. to, famously, Robert F. Kennedy moments after he was killed. Benson seemed to always be where the shit was going down—mainly due to being on assignment for LIFE magazine.
Benson has also taken photos in some incredibly dangerous situations, such as Bosnia during the conflicts there and Iraq during the first Gulf War. He was embedded with IRA paramilitaries in Belfast long before there was even such a word as “embedded.”
But Harry is mainly the master of the shiny celebrity portrait. Working for People and Vanity Fair, he has produced some of the warmest images ever of famous people who generally look like douches in photos. When it’s Harry Benson taking the picture, there will always be something spontaneous, funny, and off-kilter about it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he is one of the most important photographers of the last 50 years.
I met with Benson recently at his Upper East Side apartment. He talks with a soft Scottish brogue and says, “Do you know what I mean?” in that way Scottish people often do. His wife and best friend, Gigi, kindly brought out tea in Penguin Books mugs while Harry told me stories about his life and career.
Jesse Pearson: What’s the process like when you’re deciding which assignments to accept and which to reject?
Harry Benson: I’ve always taken any piece of shit that comes up. Unless you go in the door, you don’t know what you’re going to get.
You also don’t seem precious about doing just one sort of photography. Looking back over all of your work, there are glossy celebrity portraits and harsh photojournalism in equal measure.
I never was a specialized photographer. But I mean, I never did advertising.
That’s like the one thing you never did. Why is that?
Just because it bored me. I like the idea of the unexpectedness of going somewhere. Do you know what I mean? Does that make sense?
It definitely makes sense. I’ve also wondered what the ratio would be in your career of things that were assignments versus things that were self-directed.
Well, it’s been very hard for me—and now I’m talking like a politician—but it’s been very hard for me to photograph in fun. It’s got to be in anger, meaning I’ve got to have a specific purpose. I couldn’t walk around the streets of New York just to take photographs. But if I’ve got an assignment, I can zero in and concentrate on the pictures. It’s like, you don’t get in a fight unless you’re looking for it.
You like to have that sense of being on a mission that an assigned shoot has.
Unlike, say, Cartier-Bresson. I can tell his pictures were meant to happen.
Yeah, he’d go out looking for that moment.
That doesn’t happen with me.
But your portraits are very kind toward the subjects, so when you talk about anger it’s kind of surprising.
What I mean by “anger” is concentration. If I was photographing a personality, it would always be better if I felt a bit edgy or ill at ease. I’d be moving as close as I could to them and I couldn’t care less what they thought of me afterward. But, with that said, very few of my pictures have ever been about debunking people. I don’t go out of my way to hurt anyone.
Oh no, you don’t try to make people look grotesque—you do the opposite, really.
I recently saw a portrait of Condoleezza Rice that was a close-up and you could see all the pockmarks on her face. Cheap shot. That is a real cheap shot.
It’s not fair, that. It’s like photographing President Nixon and behind him there’s a sign that says “The Loser of All Time” but he’s not aware of it.
You’ve photographed politicians from all across the board and treated them all with equal respect aesthetically. Do you have to leave your own political biases at the door to do that?
I’ve photographed every American president since Eisenhower. And I don’t leave my politics at the door. I would say that the Republicans are easier to work with than the Democrats. The Republicans aren’t so tricky. The Democrats are inclined to lie to you. If I’m photographing a Democrat president, they’ll have a White House photographer there as well most of the time—although Clinton never did. He dismissed them when he came into the room. But Reagan and Nixon were much easier to work with.
They were more direct?
They had manners. The people around them had manners. That’s important, you know?
Who was an especially difficult president to photograph?
Jimmy Carter. But there again, he never stopped me from doing what I wanted to do. And also, I say that Republicans were easier although my politics are probably more Democrat.
What about when you go to photograph people like the IRA paramilitaries in Belfast in the 80s?
Just be careful.
Kind of an understatement.
These were dangerous people, but I wasn’t frightened of them. I was more worried about the British.
You mean what might have happened at the hands of Brit soldiers while you were with the IRA members?
That’s right. Because they told me, when I was on maneuvers with the IRA, that if we were caught, it’s an execution. They shoot you there—they don’t bother to bring you in. One night, a British patrol was nearby and we had to lie in the mud.
A lot of the resulting photos appeared in LIFE magazine. I love the picture of the IRA soldiers holding a gun to the head of the man in the Prince Charles mask.
I had the CIA and the British calling me up after the assignment was done, asking me to chat with them. I said, “You must think I’m off my head! You think I’m going to talk to you about the IRA?” For one, I would not be on the IRA Christmas list after that, if you know what I mean. And it was interesting getting to know them, because it made me realize that you couldn’t tell who was IRA and who wasn’t. It could have been anybody.
It’s fascinating, that photo of yours of the IRA bomb maker at work. It was just a typical house in Belfast with no more camouflage than drawn shades in the windows.
Right in the heart of Belfast. And it was a real bomb. You could smell it. In fact, you started to smell it about 20 yards away. An acrid smell. I wondered about that. The British patrols were always nearby, and if I could smell it, what could a dog do with it?
Were you friendly with the IRA members while you were shooting them?
Sure. They would take off their masks and drink tea. We would be in their hideouts and they would make bacon and eggs. I enjoyed it.
But it was a brutal time, the Troubles.
Brutal, yes. Terrible. I think 9/11 had a lot to do with really ending it all. It was no longer chic to be a terrorist, especially in the West. Also, they stopped getting support from Boston.
Was there an assignment when you remember feeling the most sense of personal danger?
The hardest thing I’ve done was when I was working for the London Daily Express. There was some lord—no, not a lord, a duke. He was going to marry an Irish scullery maid.
Crossing the class lines.
Right. And everybody in Fleet Street was after the picture. We managed to track them down to a restaurant in London. A place called the Caprice. The reporter went in first, looked, and then drew out for me where they were sitting. Of course they weren’t by the door. It was back in a corner. So in I go, flash on the camera under my coat, take the picture—bang—now I’ve got to get out. The waiters are shouting, “Cut him off! Cut him off!” That was awful.
That’s more dangerous in your mind than being in Bosnia or Iraq?
Yes! Put it this way—it’s more apprehensive. In Bosnia, I’m taking calculated risks. This was a whole different bunch of circumstances—and it was awful.
Fleet Street at the time you started there sounds very tough. It was competitive, with all these young male photographers fighting—often literally—over who was going to get the picture first. It was almost like a sport or a game.
It was and it wasn’t a game. If I didn’t get what was needed, I would know at 11 o’clock at night that the old man, my boss, might be on the phone and not be happy. And I’m talking about Lord Beaverbrook, the closest man to Churchill during the war. So you would know very soon whether you’d been beaten to the picture or not—and that was never pleasant.
Lord Beaverbrook does not sound like a man from whom you wanted to feel disapproval.
No. But he was also a man who stood by you. Like if I was going to photograph a duke or something like that. [laughs]
It’s interesting that the Fleet Street world at the time is partially where today’s tabloid journalism has its roots. It seems like there was something a little more sophisticated or classy about this kind of photography back then.
Nobody went after a story like Fleet Street did. The news editor would say, “Turn the hounds loose!” It was fun. I remember going to Nigeria or Yalta—one of those places. We were in this crappy old hotel. I was with a man who was British Army Intelligence during the war. Educated at Oxford, a foreign correspondent—one of Beaverbrook’s favorites. We checked in and then we discovered there was only one phone line out of the hotel even though each room had a phone. They are all on the same line. The place was full of journalists—the Evening Times, the New York Times…
All the competition.
They were all there. So my partner went down and said to the man working the phone, “What’s the best restaurant near here?” The guy said, you know, the Cock-a-Doo or something. [laughs] So we went and ate there, and then when we came back, we said to the man, “Oh, thank you, old boy. That was just great.” And then we gave this desk clerk 50 pounds or something. More than he would ever make in six months. And guess who got all the phone lines? We were straight through to London, no matter what. You’d hear other reporters in the bar: “I was cut off in midsentence!” They had to go 30, 40 miles away to find a place to wire their offices.
From what I’ve read, you were a bit of a scrapper in your day, especially when it came to the competition.
Put it this way: They’d give me a clear berth afterward. So it didn’t do me any harm. I mean, I didn’t go around looking for a fight.
But in the heat of the moment, when everyone was jockeying for a certain photo…
Oh, yes. But I was fortunate that there were a lot of good people I worked with. Smart people. Well educated.
I know that Lord Beaverbrook gave you what you consider the best advice you’ve ever gotten regarding your subjects, right?
He said, “Flattery: Put it on with a shovel.” And he was right. That’s what people want to hear when you’re photographing them. They want to hear, “Oh, I enjoyed the movie,” even though it was a piece of shit. You know what I mean? But I don’t talk to people much while I’m taking their picture. If I’m going to photograph you, and you ask me to dinner the night before, I won’t go. I don’t want you to start weighing me and figuring me out. You might say, “So where will you want to photograph me?” And I could say, “Well, that swimming pool you’ve got there—I’d love to photograph you in there with all your dogs.” So you say that it’s a great idea, but then your wife reminds you of that urban renewal program that took away swimming pools for underprivileged children. And then guess who’s not going into the swimming pool for a photo the next morning? We’ll end up in the library instead.
If you come along without having prepped them, then they have less time to second-guess your ideas.
It needs to be spontaneous with the subjects. Also, if they call me afterward saying, “Oh Harry, would you come and have dinner tonight?” I get them off the phone as quick as I can. I don’t want someone like Jack Nicholson saying to me, “That picture of me in the bubble bath… please don’t use it.” Now I’ve got a problem because they’re my new best friend. I tell all the reporters I work with, “Please don’t bring me into anything. Tell them I’ve disappeared and my pictures are all back in New York.”
If they can get close to you, they can try and put their agenda on you.
Yeah, and their agenda is no good. I want them in the bubble bath, you know?
How do you prepare for a shoot? Do you research the subject?
Not much. I’ll just know who they are. Doing too much research can lead a photographer or a writer to get overwrought. As a photographer, it’s good to be spontaneous and keep them moving. If you have them standing still for too long, rigor mortis sets in. You can see it in their eyes.
You have to be good with people to do what you do.
If I can’t get on with somebody for just an hour or two, there’s something wrong with me. I don’t go in there with any attitude and I don’t go in there with a bunch of assistants. I usually go by myself. Also, photographers have got a habit of turning up looking like maintenance men. I remember another photographer saying to me at the White House once, “Why were you invited to the second floor, to the private quarters, and we weren’t?” I said, “It’s simple. Because you’re all dressed like shit. I wouldn’t let you in my house. Look at you.” I wear a suit and a tie and I’m showing respect not only to the subject but to the magazine or newspaper I’m representing. I can put lenses in my pockets and that’s all I need. And now, I’m still the same piece of shit, the same predatory thing walking about, but the other photographers are dressed like they’ve come to fix the electricity.
What do you think of the state of magazine photography today?
Too many pictures today are like artifacts. Everything is so set up. Like Annie Leibovitz—there’s no life there. It’s like Madame Tussauds.
I really hope that sort of portraiture goes out of style soon and stays out of style forever.
And another thing that sort of photography did was to make all these younger photographers think, “I must go and set up all of these lights and have three assistants.” Bullshit. I do think that it is dying now, though.
Is digital photography a good way to counteract all this overproduced stuff?
I think it’s magic. It’s given my own work new life.
It’s also maybe allowed some bad things to happen, like the hyper-celebrity-stalking paparazzi.
I don’t know. If I were an agent in Hollywood, I’d say to my clients, “You should go to the supermarket and wear your sexiest clothes and come out holding a big salami.” Instead of that, they get all dressed up for the Academy Awards and then they get criticized for the dress that they wore. It’s crazy.
So they should learn how to manipulate the paparazzi to get good shots of themselves in the magazines. That’s a new way of looking at it.
They should be paying the paparazzi! To me it’s a no-brainer.