Harry Benson is a native of Glasgow, Scotland, in his eighties, who has for close to sixty years been one of the most skilled personality photographers on the planet. He made his name in the ’50s with pictures of everyday life in his gritty native city and of football (what we call soccer) action, not to mention political notables – some of the final images of Sir Winston Churchill are his work. In 1964 Benson came to the United States – on the same plane with four mop-topped Liverpudlians who were also making their first trip Stateside. For the next few weeks he photographed the Beatles electrifying teenagers at the Ed Sullivan Show and Carnegie Hall, then back at their hotel pillow-fighting. In Miami, he took the famed shot of John, Paul, George and Ringo, heads tilted to the left in response to Muhammad Ali’s punch, just before the young heavyweight became champion of the world for the first time.
Benson made America his home base from then on, and over 45 years, working mainly on assignment for Life and People magazines, created image after unforgettable image: Dr. Martin Luther King speaking and marching, and then motionless in his coffin; Robert F. Kennedy surrounded by outstretched hands on the campaign trail, and then dying on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel (Benson was the only photographer present); Michael Jackson perched on his red-lined throne in Neverland; Elizabeth Taylor, shaven-headed after brain surgery; bewigged Gloria Swanson, gazing into the distance; Halston and Liza Minnelli, the spires of Manhattan seen in the window behind them; Jack NIcholson roaring with laughter; Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing as the First Lady kicks up her leg; Bobby Fischer leaning over his chessboard; Joe Namath presiding over his bar/restaurant in his heyday; and thousands of other pictures.
Harry Benson has photographed the last eleven Presidents – John F. Kennedy thrilling crowds in Paris, Dwight D. Eisenhower serene and smiling in Palm Springs, Bill Clinton snuggling up with the future Secretary of State in Little Rock before he hit the campaign trail in 1992. Elizabeth Kellar of the Naples (Florida) News tells us more in her article this week:
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.”
Benson, in his Life days, traveled with the White House press corps and took many a photo of RN over five and a half years, but the one no one has forgotten for nearly four decades is almost the very last shot from that time: Richard Nixon, his family on either side, speaking to his staff on the morning of August 9, 1974. It can be seen at this webpage, and also (with many other photos) at www.harrybenson.com.
Photo by Harry Benson: RN gives farewell remarks to White House staff on August 9, 1974.