If you want a quick and off-beat look at the last 40 years of America’s history, check out Harry Benson’s America, a book that is a remarkable example of photojournalism. Harry, who says he was conceived in Brooklyn but born in Glasgow, is a tall, dapper Scot. When he was growing up his ambition was to play football for Scotland (he says it still is). His other ambition was to come to America.
He managed that, by being sent here in 1964 by the London Daily Express to cover the Beatles’ first tumultuous American visit. On that trip he convinced the moptops, when they were in Miami, to visit a young boxer who was training at his gym. Harry took a photo of the Beatles on the mat with then Cassius Clay in a victory pose, standing over them, grinning in triumph. A great off-beat shot, though the Beatles, after the fact, were not amused.
For Harry, America was love at first sight, and he told his photo editor when he returned to London that the newspaper might as well send him back because he was going anyway. During the next years, Harry, working first for Fleet Street and then for Life, took some extraordinary pictures, including the photo of Bobby Kennedy lying on the floor of the Ambassador Hotel after being mortally wounded.
Harry has photographed ten American presidents and was the only photographer to fly back to San Clemente with President Nixon and his family after he resigned. “What was it like?” I once asked him. “What do you think? It was terrible, terrible.” He still has a special fondness for the Nixon women, mother and daughters, who, he says, were always “lovely, lovely, and charming.”
He also took that famous photograph for the cover of Vanity Fair of the Reagans dancing, with Nancy kicking up her heels. Harry, who is known for always looking spiffy–and, unlike today’s shoving and pushing paparazzi, being courteous and polite–says, “You have to look right and act correctly. You are representing the publication you are working for and, just as important, you are representing yourself.” He says many photographers can take a picture of the president in the Rose Garden. But it’s his style as much as his ability that has helped get him invited upstairs into the First Family’s private quarters.
Yet at the same time, unlike many of today’s celebrity photographers, Harry does not try to make friends with the newsmakers he photographs. “I never have dinner with the people I am shooting. And I never make a request for a certain shot in advance to their handlers. I’ve learned it is much harder for people to refuse when you are there.” He also told me that after a photo session with a celebrity, he never answers the phone in his hotel room. “I don’t want to hear their opinion of what photos I should or shouldn’t use.”
Harry is still in love with the photojournalism he has practiced for more than 40 years. “The trouble with studio journalism is that no matter how good it is, it can be repeated. But photojournalism can only happen in a moment. About 20 years ago, I was thinking of becoming a fashion photographer, but what would I have now? A lot of studio pictures of girls in dresses.” One picture he regrets never taking: “Pope John Paul II reading the sports pages.”
In Harry Benson’s America there are dozens of evocative photos of everyone from Henry Kissinger to Michael Jackson, Joe Namath to General Schwarzkopf, Johnny Carson getting dressed to Johnny Cash praying with Billy Graham. But his favorite picture in that book is of a Fourth of July parade in Seguin, Texas, his wife’s home town. “It is not a picture that I would ordinarily get published.” American Photo awarded Harry their lifetime-achievement award for the book.
When I was editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, I once assigned Harry to take photos of the Clintons and the Doles during the 1996 campaign. He shot the Clintons in the White House and at one moment, Bill Clinton–impulsively it seemed–kissed Hillary. Harry said he hadn’t gotten the shot and could the president please do it again. Bill demurred, claiming it “wouldn’t look presidential.” That’s funny now, of course. Still Harry persisted and got a photograph of a giggling Hillary being bussed on the check.
Then, with the Doles at the start of their campaign, we flew to Abilene, Kansas. When it was time to take a photo I told Senator Dole that the president had kissed Mrs. Clinton and asked if he would he do the same. “Kiss Mrs. Clinton?” he snapped back. “Nah!” But he did enthusiastically kiss Mrs. Dole.
Driving back to Kansas City to catch a plane, Harry and I were talking about several British journalists and photographers we both know and assessing their abilities.
“And you, Harry,” I said, “are a very good photographer.”
“A very good photographer?” he squeaked with his Glasgow accent. “A very good photographer? I am a bloody great photographer.” He was right. He is.
–Myrna Blyth, former long-time editor of Ladies Home Journal and founding editor of More, is author of Spin Sisters: How the Women of the Media Sell Unhappiness–and Liberalism–to the Women of America. Blyth is also an NRO contributor.