Harry Benson has taken some of the most recognizable and iconic portraits of the 20th century. After getting his start on Fleet Street in London, working in the daily melee known as Britain’s newspaper industry, he photographed everyone from the Beatles to Muhammad Ali to Martin Luther King Jr. to, famously, Robert F. Kennedy moments after being killed. Benson seemed to always be where the shit was going down—mainly due to being on assignment for
Benson has also taken photos in some incredibly dangerous situations, such as Bosnia during the conflicts there and Iraq during the first Gulf War. He was embedded with IRA paramilitaries in Belfast long before there was even such a word as “embedded.”
But Harry is also a master of the shiny celebrity portrait. Working for People and Vanity Fair, he has produced some of the warmest images ever of famous people who generally look like douches in photos. When it’s Harry Benson taking the picture, there will always be something spontaneous, funny, and off-kilter about it. It’s not an exaggeration to say that he is one of the most important photographers of the last 50 years.
We met with Benson recently at his Upper East Side apartment. He talks with a soft Scottish brogue and says, “Do you know what I mean?” in that way Scottish people often do. His wife and best friend, Gigi, kindly brought us tea in Penguin Books mugs while Harry told us stories about his life and career.
Vice: What’s the process like when you’re deciding which assignments to accept and which to reject?
You also don’t seem precious about doing just one sort of photography. Looking back over all of your work, there are glossy celebrity portraits and harsh photojournalism in equal measure.
That’s like the one thing you never did. Why is that?
It definitely makes sense. I’ve also wondered what the ratio would be in your career of things that were assignments versus things that were self-directed.
You like to have that sense of being on a mission that an assigned shoot has.
Yeah, he’d go out looking for that moment.
But your portraits are very kind toward the subjects, so when you talk about anger it’s kind of surprising.
Nancy and Ronald Reagan. The White House, Washington, DC, 1985
Hillary and Bill Clinton. Little Rock, Arkansas, 1992
Oh no, you don’t try to make people look grotesque—you do the opposite, really.
You’ve photographed politicians from all across the board and treated them all with equal respect aesthetically. Do you have to leave your own political biases at the door to do that?
They were more direct?
Who was an especially difficult president to photograph?
IRA soldiers. Northern Ireland, 1985
What about when you go to photograph people like the IRA paramilitaries in Belfast in the 80s?
Kind of an understatement.
You mean what might have happened at the hands of Brit soldiers while you were with the IRA members?
A lot of the resulting photos appeared in Life magazine. I love the picture of the IRA soldiers holding a gun to the head of the man in the Prince Charles mask.
IRA bomb maker. Belfast, 1985
It’s fascinating, that photo of yours of the IRA bomb maker at work. It was just a typical house in Belfast with no more camouflage than drawn shades in the windows.
Were you friendly with the IRA members while you were shooting them?
But it was a brutal time, the Troubles.
Harry Benson with Lord Beaverbrook. Sussex, England, 1963
Was there an assignment when you remember feeling the most sense of personal danger?
London Daily Express
Crossing the class lines.
That’s more dangerous in your mind than being in Bosnia or Iraq?
Fleet Street at the time you started there sounds very tough. It was competitive, with all these young male photographers fighting—often literally—over who was going to get the picture first. It was almost like a sport or a game.
Lord Beaverbrook does not sound like a man from whom you wanted to feel disapproval.
It’s interesting that the Fleet Street world at the time is partially where today’s tabloid journalism has its roots. It seems like there was something a little more sophisticated or classy about this kind of photography back then.
New York Times
All the competition.
From what I’ve read, you were a bit of a scrapper in your day, especially when it came to the competition.
But in the heat of the moment, when everyone was jockeying for a certain photo…
Robert F. Kennedy assasination. Ambassador Hotel, Los Angeles, 1968
I know that Lord Beaverbrook gave you what you consider the best advice you’ve ever gotten regarding your subjects, right?
If you come along without having prepped them, then they have less time to second-guess your ideas.
If they can get close to you, they can try and put their agenda on you.
How do you prepare for a shoot? Do you research the subject?
You have to be good with people to do what you do.
What do you think of the state of magazine photography today?
I really hope that sort of portraiture goes out of style soon and stays out of style forever.
Is digital photography a good way to counteract all this overproduced stuff?
It’s also maybe allowed some bad things to happen, like the hyper-celebrity-stalking paparazzi
So they should learn how to manipulate the paparazzi to get good shots of themselves in the magazines. That’s a new way of looking at it.
Bobby Fischer. Reykjavík, Iceland, 1972
Sir Winston Churchill. Harrow School, England, 1965
Dominican Republic, May 1965
Mark David Chapman. Attica, New York, 1987
John Lennon. Chicago, 1966
Watts Riots, Los Angeles, 1965
George Burns, Los Angeles, 1988
R. Crumb, New York City, 1968
Mickey Devine's Wake, Londonderry, Northern Ireland, 1981
Teargassed Civil Rights Marchers, Canton, Mississippi, 1966