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.
“And I never speak to them afterwards. I am a professional and I assume they are,” he added, trying to explain that photography is a serious business, despite how many tricks you have played and how much fun you have had.
And at age 79, Benson has had more than his fair share of tricks and fun. He’s taken competitors’ shoes from in front of their hotel rooms so they could not come after him, he’s assured editors that he is in the place to be when he is nowhere near it and he’s stuffed rolls of film into his socks, just in case someone decides to confiscate his cameras.
His most famous picture of the Beatles — and his favorite picture — is of the 1964 pillow fight in a Paris hotel. He asked them to do it after seeing them have one a few days before.
“They had just been told their song ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand’ was number one in America and I wanted to show their joy and happiness,” he said.
Four years later, Benson made his most famous shot — that of an assassinated Robert Kennedy lying a pool of blood in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. He was two feet away from the body and he made another picture of his wife, Ethel, screaming for help, her hand raised as if to block the horror.
He said he had not planned to follow RFK out of the hotel but it was too crowded to go the other way.
“I took my pictures and bent down to change my film and put the rolls of used film in my socks. Twenty minutes passed and no help came, Five other people had been shot. I had seen all the blood gush out of Bobby’s head,” Benson said.
He then went home and called the FBI to tell them of his pictures in case there were accomplices to Sirhan Sirhan. “I am still waiting for the FBI to show up,” he said.
According to Benson, he has also missed some good shots. “I had lunch with the spy Kim Philby in Beirut and never took a picture. Who knew he was a spy?”
But then, he did know that Greta Garbo was once a big star and his picture of her swimming wearing a bathing cap in Antigua won play worldwide.
“I had heard she was there and I flew down to look for her and, believe it or not, she just came floating by. She never knew I was taking her picture,” Benson said, putting his lips together and throwing a kiss to his luck and to his profession.
Reporting by Arthur Spiegelman; Editing by Eddie Evans