Glasgow-born Harry Benson started his career on Fleet Street, becoming a successful news and celebrity photographer, and capturing The Beatles iconic pillow fight on hearing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ had reached number one. He travelled to America with the band in 1964, and decided to stay. In 1968, he became a contract photographer for Life and was later offered a staff job – unfortunately, right before the magazine closed down. Harry has photographed 11 American presidents.
Did any Life photographers see you as competition?
Fleet Street was more competitive – Life didn’t get upset if you missed a story. America was burning. It was the best place to work. Eisenstaedt, David Douglas Duncan, and John Loengard. To be accepted with the best photographers was an honour. I could’ve worked for French Vogue, but I didn’t go that way. And I’m glad I didn’t. All I’d have now is pictures of girls in pretty dresses.
What was it like being a Life photographer?
Well, you were part of a group considered to be the best photographers around. You got further with Life in your back pocket than you would with the Daily Express. There would be a place that you had to fight to get in to, but with Life, you were invited for dinner. You could get closer.
My whole idea of photography was to get as close as I can. I’m talking about Nixon, Johnson, Reagan. One of the reasons I did was because I always dressed as well as I could. Not like a dandy, but always respectable in a tie and jacket. But I was the same loathsome piece of shit in a suit as I would be in a pair of dungarees. I put film and lenses in my pocket, and had one camera for mobility. And no assistant – you couldn’t take one into the White House.
You didn’t do the pictorial essays like the other guys did. A lot of your photographs are more about a single image than a series of images.
That was from working at the Daily Express: photo news, getting in close. But I did spend quite a while with Michael Jackson, Bobby Fischer, and a long time with Nixon, Carter and Reagan. In fact, I’ve photographed every American president since Eisenhower. I’m showing off now.
The Bobby Fischer story is amazing – you’re known for that moment. That’s what makes your work interesting; it is about finding the moment. Tell me about Bobby Fischer. You seemed to be the guy they turned to if someone was difficult.
Everyone knew Bobby Fischer was a piece of shit. He hated people. He loved dogs and children, but hated people. I got to him because I was doing a story on the New York Jets. And Bobby said “Jets? I’m the one who’s got to be fit; if you’re at a chess table for hours you’ve got to have the stamina.” I just talked about the Jets all the time. I never talked about chess because he’d think I was a moron.
One of my favourite photographs of yours is the one with the horses in Reykjavik.
I saw these horses coming over. I moved away from Bobby. The horse came to him, and Bobby said, “Harry, Harry, he likes me!” Yet he couldn’t deal with contact with a human.
Were animals drawn to him?
Yes, dogs too. He would kiss them on the lips! I’ve always thought that no matter how difficult someone is, at one time they will soften on you and you’ve got to be ready for this. This is your road in. It happens on every story. You need it to be able to do your job. When Nixon was thrown out of office. I thanked him for letting me see a difficult part of his life, and he said, “You have to allow people to do their job”. Nobody wants to pass this way unnoticed. You’re working for a good magazine, which will record these people, and you’re doing it in the nicest possible way. Pictures don’t lie. It’s words that lie.
You were the last at Life. You were going to get the contract, and then it went.
I thought it was a terrible dirty trick, to fold the magazine as I was coming on the staff. But then again, it did mean that I owned all my photographs. I was in Paris at the time doing the Vietnam peace talks with Henry Kissinger. I went back to the Life office in Paris and heard they’d folded the magazine.
How did you feel?
Terrible. I went out and had a drink. I finished the job because there was one more issue.
Did it feel personal, or a signifier of the end of an era?
To me, it was personal. I thought, “Now I’ve made it.” Then they closed it. It should never have happened. There was too much talking about the writers, and nobody bought the magazine for the writing. It was the photographs. They’d do an essay on 12 pages and it was boring, it could have been cut down to three pages.
Was it because Luce had died?
It would never have happened if Luce were there. He would have had the editors going after better stories.
Were people getting bored of those stories about America and becoming more obsessed by celebrity?
They had circulation of six million when they folded, so must have been incompetent on the business side. I’m not the only one who said that. Six million is a hell of a lot. But this is life. Just like my dog, I shook my head and ears out of the water. I didn’t do advertising and I didn’t do annual reports. I stuck to doing photojournalism, whatever it was.
You’re the photographer who a lot of the other photographers talk about. All of them have spoken about you in writing. Did you feel different?
My first day in London, working for the Express, I was in a fight with another photographer. It was worth fighting to get as close as you can – and get out! My idea was always to get in, get as close as you can and get out. I didn’t want to become friends with them.
Did any of them pull you in?
I liked Nixon. He criticised my photos. There were people I was friendly with, such as Polanski, but not many. There are reasons for that. If I finished a job and was invited for dinner – and that happened often – I would never go. I don’t want them to say to me, “Harry, that picture of me in the bubble bath, don’t use it.” Bang goes my best picture, because of my new best friend. I never had a drink with my subjects. That’s not what I was there for.
Your pictures just seem to be a bit tougher than the other Life photographers’.
They were a bit precious. Life was like a dude ranch.
What do you mean by dude ranch?
You know, the limousines and cars waiting for them at the airports – for me, as well. In Paris you’d be staying at the best hotel. I was hungry. That’s why I would go and do any job. I would go in at any level, nothing was below me, I’d do anything at all. There was always a possibility that you might get a good picture. There might even be a great picture. Or there might be nothing. You’re just like a rat, you’re always looking for ways in, and if you work hard, you’re inclined to get lucky.
See more of our exclusive interviews with the photographers from Life magazine in Issue One of The Hunger, and on hungertv.com