By Lori Bosworth
He’s photographed The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Sir Winston Churchill, JFK, JFK Jr., Jackie Kennedy, Cher, The Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Amy Winehouse, the past 11 presidents and many other global figures and celebrities. Now, the photos of Scottish photographer Harry Benson’s will be displayed and available for sale at Toronto’s Liss Gallery. The Yorkville art gallery will host Harry Benson: The 50th Anniversary of the Beatles from November 16, 2013 to December 16, 2013. You’ll be able to see the vast portfolio of Benson, a LIFE Magazine photographer as well as purchase prints from his collection.
Benson accompanied The Beatles on their first North American tour in 1964 and comments on it and other celebrities in the email interview I conducted with Benson below:
LB: Who was the wittiest Beatle?
HB: They were all very quick witted, but I would have to say John was the wittiest and most politically astute.
LB: Can you describe the experience of photographing the Beatles on their first American tour? What were the challenges? Anything unusual that you saw?
HB: They were all very young and I was not much older. No one thought they would basically change the world–the music, the dress, the attitude. It was all happening very fast.
LB: Who was your favourite celebrity to photograph and why?
HB: President Richard Nixon. He was very animated and traveled all over the world meeting with world leaders and did interesting things during his presidency. It made for very interesting photographs.
LB: Who was the most challenging to photograph?
HB: Bobby Fischer, the chess champion. He was a complete loner and a genius and the most fascinating character I have ever photographed.
LB: How did you get Wayne Gretzky to pose in his shorts? We’re talking about Canada’s favourite sports icon here!
HB: The story was for LIFE magazine and in America, football was the most popular sport, so we knew we had to have a knock out photograph to get the story on ice hockey into the magazine. and Gretzky with his blond good looks and fabulous talent was the perfect choice.
LB: Please describe the experience of photographing Michael Jackson.
HB: I photographed Michael over the years, on his world tour, at Neverland, with Lisa Marie, with his first born Prince, and I always found him to be a gentleman and a pleasure to work with. He was an extremely talented performer, a fine athlete and dancer and I always came away with an exclusive photograph. He knew that was what I needed.
LB: You have been at the center of many monumental events in the 20th century and witnessed tragedies including Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and the funeral of Martin Luther King, Jr., as well as many wars? Does the act of photographing these tragic incidents distance you from them emotionally?
HB: Senator Robert Kennedy gave his victory speech at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in the California presidential primary and said, “On to Chicago,” then he moved into the kitchen to leave the event. I followed as it was very crowded and I knew the quickest way out was with the candidate. Then I heard the shot ring out and I knew we had moved from happiness into hell. I kept saying to myself, “This is for history, don’t mess up today.”
I feel that it is my job to document history as it happens, not to pick and choose what to photograph.
LB: What drew you to photography and what do you love about your job?
HB: I don’t know what I would do if I had to work for a living. Joking aside, listening to Churchill’s speeches during WWII made me want to get to the center of what was happening in the world.
LB: Whom would you love to photograph?
LB: What do you love to do when you’re not working?
HB: I like to take my wife, Gigi, out to dinner. I like to see my grandchildren and then get home to watch ice hockey with my dog Tillie sitting on my knee.
LB: What advice would you give up-and-coming celebrity photographers
HB: The business is so different now, it is hard to answer. I get asked this question all the time. My answer is always, “buy a guitar.” Seriously, it is a different world today, everyone with a cell phone is a photographer. If you really want to be a working photographer, you just have to keep at it and not be afraid of hard work.