Photographer Harry Benson makes stars shine

Fri Apr 4, 2008 9:13am EDT
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By Arthur Spiegelman

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The Beatles staged a pillow fight for him to photograph and he turned it into a portrait of poetry in motion. The Reagans and the Clintons posed kissing for his cameras, as did Lisa Marie Presley and Michael Jackson.

Richard Nixon let him watch his resignation speech in the White House and three days later invited him to San Clemente to continue recording the breakdown of a presidency. Elizabeth Taylor showed him her bald head after brain surgery. Of course, he made her look good and told her she looked just like Sinead O'Connor.

Although Harry Benson has also covered wars, revolutions and assassinations, the photojournalist is best known for his celebrity photos. You name the face -- Muhammad Ali, Michael Jackson, Greta Garbo, Princess Grace, Princess Diana, Queen Elizabeth -- and it could be a Benson image that you conjure up.

Some critics complain that a Benson celebrity looks the way you would expect him or her to look, but others say that is because he sets the standard. You are not surprised or shocked by his images so much as reassured by them -- Yes, Ronald Reagan did indeed love Nancy and she him, just look at the pictures.

As he sat among a retrospective of 60 years of his work at the Los Angeles Pacific Design Center, an exhibit sponsored by Architectural Digest, Benson reminisced about his work and the rules he lives by. The exhibition is on until May.

The rules are common sense -- hit the ground running and don't follow the pack, dress neatly so as not to insult the people you are photographing, be nervous because if you aren't, you should be and most of all, do not become buddies with the subjects, unless they are the Beatles. "They were human beings. They weren't surrounded by handlers and PR types," he said. Benson flew into the United States with the Beatles in 1964 and never left.

"Celebrities, I don't want to know them afterwards. I don't care and I would never have dinner with them (during the shoot) because I don't want them to dictate what I am doing. They'll say things like 'Harry, don't use that picture of me in the swimming pool.' So we wind up using the picture shot in the library and it is crappy," he said in a soft accent bred in Glasgow.

DON'T LOOK BACK   Continued...

<p>Scottish-born photojournalist Harry Benson, who photographed for "Life" magazine and currently shoots for "Vanity Fair" magazine, poses at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles March 24, 2008 with one of his most famous photographs. REUTERS/Fred Prouser</p>