If you go
When: Lecture is at 4 p.m. Friday; there is also an opening reception for “Camera USA,” a national photography exhibit juried by Benson, from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. that day
Where: The von Liebig Art Center, 585 Park St., Naples
Admission: $10 for Naples Art Association members, $15 for nonmembers. Reception is free for NAA members, $10 for nonmembers. Tickets available at the door or by visiting www.naplesart.org
Information: (239) 262-6517
In his six decades as a photographer, Harry Benson has photographed presidents and princesses, movie stars and massacres. Some would say there’s nothing he hasn’t photographed.
Benson wouldn’t be one of them.
Now in his 80s, he doesn’t hesitate when asked about who’s on his list to still shoot: He’d turn his lens on the slightly sinister-looking Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Nor does Benson pause to consider which of his many famous subjects he would ask to sit for him just one more time.
“Probably everyone I’ve photographed,” he says.
That’s a long list, one that’s populated with heroes, heartbreakers and history. Benson shot the Berlin Wall when it was being built and when it was being torn down. He caught Martin Luther King Jr. as he spoke to his followers and, later, as those followers filed past the slain civil rights leader’s open casket.
He photographed President John F. Kennedy in Paris, Robert Kennedy’s assassination at a Los Angeles hotel and Caroline Kennedy’s Massachusetts wedding.
Now, Benson will share stories from his career and life as part of a special lecture at the von Liebig Art Center. “Harry Benson: 60 years in Photography” will be at 4 p.m. on Friday in connection with the art center’s “Camera USA” national photography exhibit. Benson judged the exhibition.
Growing up in Glasgow, Scotland, Benson turned to photography because he was “hopeless at school,” he says. World War II was raging, and photography seemed like an escape and a window to the drama of faraway events.
“I always wanted to take part in that,” he recalls. “I always liked the idea of that, of working for a paper and getting assignments.”
He was working for a newspaper and planning to go to Africa when he received the assignment that would change his future. It was 1964, and a British boy band was about to make it big. At the time, Benson admits that he couldn’t have cared less.
“I didn’t want to do the Beatles at first. I was going to Africa,” he recalls.
“And it was the best thing that could have happened to me.”
Benson and the Fab Four hit it off, achieving a level of ease that allowed Benson to be in their Paris hotel room the night they got the phone call that their song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had gone to No. 1 in the United States. Benson captured the Beatles’ reaction, a jubilant pillow fight that remains not just one of the most memorable photographs of the group but also one of the most iconic images in all of celebrity photography.
Ultimately, photographing the Beatles proved to be an exciting adventure, Benson says — and one that made his job easy.
“You would get pictures all the time,” Benson says. “They did a lot of things. It wasn’t as if they were running away from you. They were running towards you.”
Through the years, he photographed the late actress
Elizabeth Taylor numerous times, including immediately after her brain surgery, when her head was shaved. Much was always made about Taylor’s beauty, but Benson remembers something else about the screen goddess.
“I don’t really care about the beauty part,” he says. “Of course she was a beautiful woman. All I care about is coming back to what I said: She was amenable. You would go away wagging your tail. I got a nice photograph.”
Benson has photographed every U.S. president from Dwight D. Eisenhower to Barack Obama; of all of them, Richard Nixon remains his favorite. The reason has nothing to do with politics. Like Taylor, Nixon let him do his work, Benson says, and the result was photo gold, such as the images that resulted from the night when Nixon resigned from office.
“He was interesting, and he did a lot of interesting things,” Benson says of Nixon. “He said to me, ‘Harry, you’ve got to allow professional people to do their jobs.’ And, really, this is what the business is about. It’s very hard to be critical on somebody who allows you to do your job.”
Which isn’t to say Benson can’t be critical. He absolutely can, and reserves his sternest words for a trend that’s increasingly commonplace in modern-day photography: The retouching of images using computer programs such as Photoshop. He has never done it and never will, he says; to do so would mean that everything he has done in his life is a fake.
“A photograph doesn’t lie,” he says. “But now, every photograph that I’ve seen in a magazine is a lie.”
And although he’s not a paparazzi photographer, he praises the breed for keeping candid celebrity photography alive.
“They’re taking pictures that haven’t been controlled by the publicist and the press people. So it’s not like the photographer’s been told you can only take it here or you can only take them there,” he says. “The paparazzi give you photographs that you wouldn’t even see.”