Harry Benson: Fifty Years In Pictures (Abrams)
Rating: 9 / 10by Harry Benson
Reviewed by James Cotter
Celebrities, musicians, historical figures and every American president since Eisenhower have been caught in Harry Bensons lens. His extraordinary body of work, collected in Harry Benson: Fifty Years in Pictures (Abrams), is a visual lesson in the political and cultural history of the last half-century.
A native of Scotland, Benson got his start as a photographer for a number of Glasgows daily newspapers and later moved to Londons Fleet Street, where hungry photographers competed for page space and exposure in the UKs most widely read newspapers. With minimal formal training, Benson quickly learned his craft. From his days hunting down stories as a relative unknown, Benson developed both the skills and attitude needed to pursue his subjects with aggression. All he needed was one big break.
Along came the Beatles. The London Daily Express sent Benson throughout Europe and the US in 1964 to cover the group as they stormed the world. The assignment would be an early defining moment in his career. The Beatles provided Benson with countless opportunities to produce seemingly spontaneous images that, in reality, belie the patient and personal approach Benson brings to his craft. Perhaps the most beloved of the series is a shot of the four young men engaged in a raucous pillow fight that was characteristic of the energy and vitality of the group during their early years together.
The trip to America marked a turning point in Bensons life. The recognition he received from his photographs enabled him to settle permanently in New York and become a regular correspondent for the London papers as well as work for such premier magazines as Life, and later Vanity Fair, People, the New Yorker and GQ. Many of the images created for those magazines appear in this edition.
The social and political upheavals of the 1960s provided Benson with opportunities to expand his range and bear witness to some of this countrys most turbulent events. Benson was on hand for the Freedom March in Mississippi and photographed civil rights demonstrations with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He produced haunting images of a KKK rally in South Carolina and witnessed the destruction caused by the Watts riots in Los Angeles.
Perhaps the most potent images Benson produced during this period were of Robert Kennedys assassination. Benson was wrapping up his coverage of RFKs victory speech after winning the California primary when suddenly the room fell into chaos. As the press corps, police and campaign workers scrambled and panicked, Benson clawed his way to the spot where Kennedy was shot, trying desperately to maintain his focus while being pummeled by the crowd. Bensons image of Ethel Kennedys reaction to the shooting remains one of the most chilling and widely recognized images from that fateful day.
In contrast to Bensons photojournalism, his portfolio of celebrity photographs exhibits a more intimate look into the personalities of popular culture. Much of Bensons reputation has been built on the strength of his celebrity photography and the images portray his subjects letting down their guard and exposing something personal and telling. Benson's work celebrates spontaneity and shuns carefully orchestrated setups. Images of Michael Jackson, OJ Simpson, Kate Moss, Greta Garbo, Truman Capote, Jack Nicholson and Elizabeth Taylor show the range of pop culture figures that have sat for Benson over the last half-century.
Throughout his career, Benson has been afforded the unique opportunity to bear witness to the events and the people that have shaped our perception of the world. With running commentary and rich, anecdotal information about the circumstances and stories behind the images, Harry Benson: Fifty Years in Pictures, is a treasure trove of photographic history.