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Benson shares stories from his photographic journey

By Staff | May 18, 2011

Legendary photographer Harry Benson discusses the story behind one of his most iconic images — The Beatles learning that "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" had reached #1 on the Billboard charts — during his lecture at the von Liebig Art Center last week.

His photographs have graced the covers of magazines including LIFE, People, Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Vanity Fair and Architectural Digest. He has taken images of every President of the United States since Dwight Eisenhower. And he has been invited by several notable celebrities to take pictures of some of their most celebrated, yet intimate, moments.

But after more than six decades working as a photojournalist, Harry Benson is a bit skeptical about the career which has earned him countless professional accolades as well as the appointment by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

“One thing I used to say is a photograph doesn’t lie,” said Benson before his lecture last Friday afternoon at the von Liebig Art Center in Naples. “I can’t say that now because everything has gone digital. All pictures being produced today are manipulated in some way. I’m shooting digital now, but I don’t do anything with Photoshop mainly because, to me, it would mean that everything I’ve done in my life is fake. Photography is too slick these days… it doesn’t make any sense.”

Born in Scotland, Benson recalled growing up during World War II and how he started his career behind the camera.

“I think that when you grow up in the midst of a war, when everything you see is associated with so much drama, it made me want to become a photojournalist,” said Benson.

Harry Benson spoke for more than an hour about his illustrious career as a photojournalist.

Although he had already become a heralded on-the-spot newspaper photographer, Benson’s “really big break,” as he dubbed it, came in 1964 when he was assigned to cover The Beatles during their first trip to America.

Speaking before a standing room only crowd at the opening of the von Liebig Art Center’s exhibition, “Camera USA,” Benson shared a few tales about his time spent with the Fab Four, as well as the stories behind some of his most famous images.

“Brian Epstein (The Beatles’ manager) had just told them ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ was #1 in America and that they were going to be on The Ed Sullivan Show,” Benson said while describing a picture of Paul, Ringo, John and George engaged in a pillow fight in their Paris hotel room, one of many images he shared during the lecture.

One image, of President Ronald Reagan dancing wife his wife, Nancy, which appeared on the July 1985 cover of Vanity Fair, Benson described as “the photograph that saved the magazine.” Other images, including Caroline Kennedy in her wedding dress, Michael Jackson holding his newborn son Prince, and Elizabeth Taylor — both celebrating her 60th birthday and the day after brain surgery — were among his cache of memorable photos captured during Benson’s brilliant career.

His subjects read like a “Who’s Who” list of world leaders, news makers and entertainment personalities spanning several generations: John F. Kennedy, Brad Pitt, Greta Garbo, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Frank Sinatra, Boris Yeltsin, Joe Namath, Princess Diana, Andy Warhol, Winston Churchill, Jack Nicholson, Truman Capote, Cher, Bobby Fischer, Alfred Hitchcock, Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher.

Benson, left, speaks with former co-worker Maimie Smith, second from right, about their days together in Alexandria, Scotland.

Asked which era he most enjoyed working as a photojournalist, Benson paused for a moment before responding in his soft, Scottish brogue.

“Probably the 1960s… because there was a lot going on in America,” he said. “The Beatles arrived here, and so did I. Then there was the civil rights movement and the race riots in Los Angeles. There were a lot of demonstrations going on, both for and against the Vietnam War. I’ve always liked to say that in 1968, America had a nervous breakdown.”

Prior to his lecture, Maimie Smith was looking forward to seeing Benson again. The two worked together at a newspaper in Alexandria, Scotland — he as a photographer and she as a darkroom technician. The former co-workers hadn’t seen each other in almost 60 years.

“He was fun to work with,” said Smith, whom Benson immediately recognized after arriving at the gallery. “Back then, he was so into his photography and people. And after so much time, he still is.”

With photographs part of the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution, Benson’s images have been showcased at the Royal Museum of Scotland, British Museum of Photography, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Carpenter Center at Harvard University and the Presidential Libraries of Hoover, Truman, Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and Bush.

A resident of New York City, where he lives with his wife, Gigi, Benson spends his winters in Wellington, Fla. He is currently under contract with Vanity Fair, and plans to keep contributing more memorable images to his already amazing collection.

“I’m very fortunate to be able to do what makes me happy,” added Benson.