Over the 73-year course of photographer Harry Benson’s career, the Scottish-born, Wellington, Florida, resident has made a specialty of shooting his subjects from inches away, even when doing so put him at risk. As he understands it, that’s the job. “You photograph what you see,” he says, “and what you see should inform.” Since leaving his postwar service in the RAF, at 20, that mantra has carried him from a Glasgow weekly to London tabloid Daily Express and into the pantheon of photojournalism at Life magazine.

Now, at 93, Benson may be the last surviving member of that get-the-picture-at-any-cost generation. Along the way, he photographed every American president from Eisenhower to Trump. His work appeared in Life as well as Time, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Vanity Fair, and a multitude of other mass-circulation magazines of the 20th century, with assignments to photograph film, sports, music, and fashion stars as well as epochal events. For three decades his pictures ran on their covers. His name did not. Frontline photography was no job for a diva.

In 1961, when Soviet laborers began laying the first stones of the Berlin wall, Benson photographed the action. In 1989, when German citizens pulled the wall down, he was there again. When Muhammad Ali (then Cassius Clay) won his first title fight against Sonny Liston, Benson was ringside. He chronicled civil course rights marches and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan. The Beatles’ first trip to America in 1964 was also his. Benson traveled with the band, recording, and absorbing, the hysteria around them.

For Benson, immediacy is the name of the game. “You have to break down the hidden wall between the camera and what you’re seeing,” Benson tells me during an animated Zoom call that was further invigorated by his occasional breaks into song, and by the additional presence of Gigi Benson, the lively Texan he married 55 years ago. She is the mother of his two children and the keeper of his substantial archive. This summer, viewers on the East End of Long Island can see leading examples in A Moment in Time: Iconic Images by Harry Benson, on view through July 15 at the Southampton Arts Center.

Though hard news was his meat and potatoes, Benson was never above making a paparazzi move when the occasion called for it. Security forces were no obstacle, either; their presence was an invitation to move closer to the action. “I’ve taken it as far as a camera can take me,” Benson says, detailing the lengths he has gone to shoot his subjects, even if it meant puncturing their privacy. Yet, whether he was photographing the last Shah of Iran or a stranger mourning the death of a son, his pictures carry the intimacy of a snapshot by a trusted friend.

This story and more appears in PALMER On the Road, available now.


Jackie Kennedy, Laurentian Mountains, near Montreal, Canada, 1968.
“You can call this picture a paparazzo shot. I got it because I followed her up a mountain in Canada. She’s where the ski lift stops, with nowhere to go, and I’m there waiting for her. What is ironic about this is that she called me after Life published the picture and asked me to photograph her daughter’s wedding. And we had a nice lunch. But it wasn’t three cheers for me at the top of the hill! It’s a good picture. It’s just her eyes, but you know it’s Jackie.”

Beatles fans, New York, 1964.
“This was the Beatles’ first trip to America, and none of what happened had happened to them before. They didn’t know this and that. When they get a little older, Paul McCartney wants to help you edit. And that’s a problem, but it’s too late. It’s my job to get in as close as I can and photograph what I see. I went in the car with them sometimes, and sometimes it didn’t suit me to jump in. And sometimes they would go off without me, but that was the life I chose.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and James Meredith, the March Against Fear, Canton, Mississippi, 1966.
“The marches were dangerous. There was always trouble. I mean, bad trouble. Martin Luther King got beat up a couple of times when I was with him. Out of the crowd comes bad guys, in a bad town. You didn’t go back to your hotel room without a torn shirt or jacket. But you had to get in there. If I hadn’t taken any photographs, I wouldn’t talk about it now. I mean, the photographs show you were there. I never carried more than two cameras, because I didn’t want to be weighed down. I wanted to run. I had to escape sometimes. I’ve seen photographers get beat up by the police. I wasn’t there when James Meredith got shot, but I wasn’t that far away. Dr. King was angry because he wasn’t able to finish the march that day. The police wouldn’t let him. At the church in Canton, he said something like, ‘We march tomorrow.’ And they marched, and there was trouble again.
He had bodyguards. It was good for the photographer to get to know who they were, because Dr. King wanted us there. He would shout at his people to accept us, because sometimes they didn’t know whom to hit. But Dr. King would stop them from doing us bodily harm. I spent a lot of time with him. He called me Harry. ‘You were a bit slow today, Harry. You missed that picture.’ I said, ‘Well, I just came off a plane.’ If he saw you when he was marching, he would give a wave, but he did that with a lot of photographers. He knew when they liked him.”

Tina Turner and Janis Joplin, The Rolling Stones concert, Madison Square Garden, New York City, 1969.
“Janis jumped on the stage while Tina was performing. It wasn’t arranged. I wanted to get as close to them as I could. People were cheering and the crowd came forward, and the security wasn’t quite strong enough to keep back the surge of people who wanted to touch them. That was an opportunity for me to get on the stage. It can happen at any moment. Four people get on, or five, and then a hundred, and I go with them. You say to yourself, ‘I’ve got to dive into this.’ It was dangerous. I got hit on the back of the head, but I got the picture.”

James Brown, Augusta, Georgia, 1979.
“James Brown had his hair in curlers when I went to meet him. Then we got in his car and in the middle of a street he would jump out of the car and shout, ‘I feel fine!’ Then we’d go to another neighborhood. A bunch of people are just lounging about a doorway. And he would jump out and say, ‘I feel good!’ And run back.”

Greta Garbo, Antigua, 1976.
“I’m in Antigua and stopped for lunch at this holiday resort. There were a few people in the restaurant. And one of the waiters says to me, ‘That’s Greta Garbo over there.’ And I say, ‘Where?’ And he points to the table where she was. I said, ‘God, you’re right.’ So, it was, like, she’s not going to get away from here without a photograph. She never wanted to be photographed. But she didn’t see me in the restaurant. In the ocean she saw me. I was on a boat, and she couldn’t do anything about it. She had nowhere to escape. It was, like, she’s trapped. There was no place to hide, to duck. She’d done that all her life—run away from people like me who wanted to take her picture. Only because she was very famous, and she was so, ‘I want to be alone.’ That only encourages people like me to photograph her. It’s a good picture. I left her alone after that.”

Donald Trump, Atlantic City, 1990.
“I photographed Trump for years. And Ronald Reagan. Reagan was a decent guy. He would have you stay for dinner, but that wouldn’t stop me from saying, like, ‘I want you in the bathtub. I want you with no clothes on.’ The nicer people are with me, the more predatory I become. I want to go closer, really and truly. Because I know I’m only there because of what I represent. I’m under no illusion that I’m a wonderful person. Give me a break.”


Cassius Clay hits Sonny Liston, Miami, 1964.
“That ‘phantom punch’ didn’t do Sonny Liston any good. It wasn’t a knockout. Liston just refused to come out for the sixth round. He sat on his stool and shook his head. They were calling him…his trainers, his seconds. They were shouting at him and saying things like, ‘Sonny, you’re going to be a bum all your life. You’ve got to come out!’ He was getting hit. No question about it.
I don’t think it’s important to get close to people like [Muhammad Ali] that you photograph many times. It’s one of the most stupid things you can do, really. Because what you get is a call when you get home from any celebrity: ‘Please don’t use that picture. I think you are a nice man, but this will be bad for me.’ I’ve had it from actresses. That’s the big reason you don’t get friendly with famous people, because they’ll definitely want to control you, and control your photographs. They’re control freaks. So, you’ve got to find that no-man’s land between your celebrity and you, or anyone and you. I don’t want them to think I’m their best friend.”

Sir Winston Churchill at Harrow School, London, England, 1960.
“Before this I photographed Konrad Adenauer, Gamal Abdel Nasser, King Farouk—a lot of people. Jomo Kenyatta, too. But Churchill was always a main subject for the Daily Express, because Lord Beaverbrook, who owned the paper, had been in Churchill’s cabinet during the war and helped to get him into politics. Anything Churchill did, being the great man he was, Beaverbrook got his reporters and photographers to cover it. I’ve got hundreds of pictures of Churchill. He went to the Harrow School every year. Well, I don’t know if he went every year, but I [photographed it] four years in a row and I was always pleased to do it. This time, he said, ‘I hope you didn’t catch me crying,’ because it was quite emotional. The boys sang a school song to him. I won’t forget it. It went, ‘And Churchill’s name/shall win acclaim/through each new gener-ation.’ And the old man would cry, and other people were crying, because Harrow, his old school, brought back memories, and they weren’t always good memories.”

Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, The Plaza Hotel, New York City, 1966.
“I photographed Truman Capote a few times. And the one thing about Truman Capote, he loved to be the belle of the ball. There wasn’t the word ‘private’ in his vocabulary. I knew he would let me into the party and tell me everything. But he built it into this secret thing. It was great. The newspapers were a bit naïve to think that Truman would not let everybody in. But I knew. Truman loved publicity. He would say, ‘No, it’s very private,’ but if you went up and asked him, ‘Can I come?’ ‘Yeah, sure. By all means!’ I worked for the Daily Express, where gossip news was important. And everyone was going to this party. Kings and queens. I met a lot of people I hadn’t met before. And there’s Truman saying, ‘Come in.’ He’s getting all this publicity and you’re getting all the photographs. And he was funny. He said, in that high voice of his, ‘It’s the most private party in the world,’ which made everyone want to be there. The worst thing they could say was, ‘I never got an invite.’ People left town so they wouldn’t have to say that they weren’t there. ‘Oh, I was out of town.’ Excuse me?”

Diana Vreeland, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1973.
“I wanted to treat Mrs. Vreeland respectfully. I wanted her to look like what she was. She was a clever woman and would suggest ideas, people she wanted to talk to, and all that. It was pleasant. I told her to sit down and put her hands up. I wanted to go my own way with the photograph, and she understood exactly. It was fun. She had very small feet, but she wasn’t small in the business she was in. She was the boss. She wore Valentino. A pale blue silk blouse. A smart lady.”

Robert Crumb, New York City subway, 1968.
“I was working for a good magazine and Robert Crumb understood that. He didn’t want to let this moment make him look ordinary. So that’s a thing that I’ve got: you want to be in Life magazine and I want some action. I want an interesting photograph. This is what I tell them. And the longer [the subject is] with you, and I mean longer could be 20 minutes, they like to show off. Crumb was one of these people who had to work to be interesting, as far as I was concerned. He couldn’t just sit there and make funny faces. I had to get him moving. I told him that. It’s always good to keep people moving. Once you go into a studio or any controlled, quiet area, you watch rigor mortis set in.”