A few years ago I came across a photo that rocked me. I simply had to know more about it. The photographer was Harry Benson, whose work I knew but not well, so I proceeded to his website and sent an inquiry to a general email address expecting to get a terse response from an intern or an archivist. So imagine my surprise when a detailed and friendly response came a few days later from the man himself. We struck up a correspondence after that initial approach, and of course my knowledge of his work has become nearly encyclopedic as a result, as has my deep admiration for him.
Last summer, my favorite publishing house Taschen released Benson’s 15th book of photos, simply called Paul — about Paul McCartney, a regular subject of his for over five decades and the one for which (along with three other guys) he is perhaps best known.
We were going to do this interview at that time to promote it, but as a signed limited edition of 600, it sold out before we could connect for it. Not seeing much value in promoting a sold-out book, we put the idea aside until earlier this year when Taschen and Benson made the decision to release a trade edition to honor Sir Paul on his 80th birthday in June. So in light of the news that pre-orders (which finally came this week) would be opening up for the release, we dusted off our little idea and did some back and forth via our preferred channel of email. Here’s how it went.
InsideHook: I always like to start with the question: where are you now and what are you doing?
Harry Benson: My wife Gigi and I divide our time between our home in Florida and our office in New York City. During the COVID lockdown we have been working on the remaining exhibitions opening this year: Harry Benson Icons at the Frederic Got Gallery in Saint Paul de Vence, France which opens later this month; Harry Benson Retrospective at the Redwood Library in Newport, Rhode Island which opens June 29; and Harry Benson, The 60s, at the Addison Gallery of Contemporary Art in Andover, Massachusetts in September.
We’re here to talk about the extraordinary new book of your photographs of Paul McCartney with commentary focusing heavily on the Wings era but I’d like to start with a few more general questions, especially for the benefit of some of our younger readers who might not be entirely up to speed on all things Harry Benson. I re-watched the extremely charming 2015 documentary about you, Shoot First, last night, and it occurred to me that you have probably been present at more historic moments — good and bad, happy and sad — than any living human being, documenting them all in the process.
Thank you for your comments. For over 65 years I have always accepted every job that came along, and it does add up to quite a few negatives in the files. I feel very lucky to have had the opportunity to document a part of the history of the 20th century.
One thing that struck me about Shoot First, which I really hope everyone reading this will watch, is that you are surrounded by extraordinary women. Your daughters are obviously devoted and proud, and of course there’s your dear wife, business partner and protector, Gigi. These women come across as your rocks. Am I right? They fuel you?
I would say that is true. I am very proud of our daughters, Wendy and Tessa, and of course, Gigi. We have been married since 1967 — a long time! We have worked together as a team for as long as I can remember…
I suppose you are best known at least to the general public for capturing iconic celebrity moments — from The Beatles’ arrival at JFK and ensuing Plaza Hotel pillow fight to the controversial shot of Greta Garbo in the ocean with the shower cap to Jack Nicholson with the traces of blow on his nose to the masked Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball and so forth — but there is so much more. You’ve covered many war and danger zones. You were given an opportunity to cover the IRA. You’ve photographed presidents extensively going back to Ike. There’s Churchill and multiple images of Queen Elizabeth II over the course of her reign. You have stood with camera in the midst of extremely dangerous situations. You took that photo of RFK on the floor as he was slowly dying at the Ambassador Hotel that tragic night. JFK’s funeral and burial. MLK in the casket…and so on. With all of this in mind, how do you feel when you are simply referred to from time to time as “Celebrity photographer Harry Benson,” or lumped in with paparazzi?
Well, I just shrug my shoulders. What can I do? They can lump me into any category they want. I have to stay amused by it all, otherwise I would be unhappy all the time. My motto is I photograph what I see and what I see should inform. Be it celebrities or an horrific assassination or what have you.
I won’t ask you if you have a favorite shot of yours, but could you name a few of which you are particularly proud?
Of course it has to be The Beatles Pillow Fight; the photograph of Ethel Kennedy at the RFK assassination; Chess champ Bobby Fischer being nuzzled by a horse; Jackie Kennedy in a Ski Mask; Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr during the Civil Rights marches…and many others that can be found on my website or on my Instagram account.
As you know, I’m mildly obsessed with a shot you took of total strangers just by chance in a restaurant in Germany. Berlin Kiss, which can be found in your book, Persons of Interest, and is also currently the cover image on the website you just mentioned.
When the Berlin Kiss is exhibited, it is interesting to watch the faces of the people looking at the photograph for the first time. It is impossible not to catch the look on every face which says so openly, “I wish it were me in that photograph…”
Many of your most intriguing shots are just random moments that you caught by chance. So I guess you carry a camera everywhere you go? Have you ever used an iPhone camera? I feel like these devices are becoming more and more camera than phone.
I don’t like to photograph in a studio. I like people in their own environment, so yes, I carry my Canon digital mirrorless camera everywhere…usually in Gigi’s handbag. Gigi is the one who uses her cell phone to photograph our life, our dogs, our grandkids and so forth, but I stay with my camera.
You are not just Harry Benson nowadays; in 2009, CBE was added. Tell us a little about how that came to be and what it was like to receive that honor.
I was quite surprised, extremely honored and proud to be chosen a Commander of the Order of the British Empire for service to photography in Queen Elizabeth’s Christmas honors list in 2009. Gigi and our daughters, Wendy and Tessa, accompanied me to Buckingham Palace to receive the honor.
My friend Christopher Makos, who is very prolific and has been at it for a long time but not nearly as long as you, has an archivist who nearly pulls his hair out trying to keep up with maintaining and preserving Christopher’s catalogue. I can’t begin to imagine what it must be like to manage your archive. Have you kept track of how many of your photographs have been published over the years and the number of images in your archive?
Hello to Christopher, whose archives are incredibly important as documentation of the important art scene of the last half of the 20th century. As for my archives, the filing, scanning and organization of all the assignments from the ’60s to the present has been Gigi’s task, plus scheduling assignments and keeping a record of the fine art gallery exhibitions and sales.
Onto Sir Paul. You partnered with Taschen last summer on a truly beautiful limited edition 172-page coffee table book called Paul. There were only 600 of them, they went quickly, and to everyone’s delight Taschen has just announced that a trade edition to mark a major milestone is available for pre-order. This is your 15th major photo book…
Indeed. Paul McCartney will celebrate his 80th birthday on June 18, and it seemed the right time to continue celebrating his career, concentrating on the Wings period with wife Linda at his side.
Tell us a bit about the process of putting such a large and detailed project like Paul together. I imagine you probably have hundreds more photos of Paul than are in the book.
Gigi and I went over the black-and-white contact sheets and the color slides, scanning the selects. I like to see actual prints, and the limited edition version contains actual prints. We printed about 20 selects to show our editor Reuel Goldin at Taschen, and I do believe seeing the quality of the actual prints had an impact on the decision to do the book in the first place.
You have known Paul McCartney forever. You flew into JFK with the Beatles, covering that historic first trip to America. Tell us a little bit about your relationship. Your mutual affection is very obvious.
There is a history and a bit of nostalgia as I was there when Beatlemania changed the world, and that is not an overstatement. Yet our lives are very different, and we do not see each other unless we happen run into each from time to time.
I interviewed his drummer, Abe Laboriel, Jr., a few years ago and something he said really struck me. I inquired along the lines of what it was like for Paul to move from point A to point B without being constantly interrupted and whether it bothered him, and Abe said something along the lines of “Nope. Paul is very good about giving everyone their moment.” I found that very touching. And telling.
To get anything done, Paul was always the Beatle to go. His youthful energy and awareness of what was actually happening was always what I relied on to get the photographs I needed.
Do you see him much these days? Still photographing him? He seems to be constantly touring.
We have accidentally run into each other three or four times, both of us having dinner at Sette Mezzo, Gigi and my favorite New York restaurant. And we always stop to visit for a while. But I am always there to be objective and do my job. There is the line between subject and photographer that should not be crossed. I am not there to become anyone’s new best friend, but to document what is happening. Hopefully for history.
Did he have any reaction to the book?
The Taschen team sent a copy to Paul, and hopefully he was pleased.
You are 92 years old, and yet still more prolific than artists half your age. Still mischievous I’m told, still a character. What’s next?
Gigi and I are working on a series of four books: The 60s, The 70s, The 80s, and The 90s. It is a huge project, but one we really want to accomplish. We will keep you posted on the progress!