'Let me fail tomorrow, not today" - Harry Benson

Updated: May 26, 2020

Harry Benson, a photographer that I found through a documentary I watched on Netflix: "Harry Benson: Shoot First". At first, I was a bit sceptical as sometimes documentaries are far-fetched, but when I realised that this particular documentary was produced partially by Benson's wife, I was assured that the information would be accurate and realistic. It was informative, interesting and of course, being Harry Benson, funny and a most definite must-watch.


Benson, in his day, was a very hard-working man, who was always ready to drop anything he was doing to go anywhere at any time when the publishers asked. This included when he was spending time with his family. One person who Benson covered was Martin Luther King, who he was quite close with. Alongside that came the coverage of the KKK and the black rights marches.

KKK chief Bobby Shelton with the guns that killed Viola Liuzzo

Credit: Harry Benson

Copyright: © Harry Benson



A woman holds her baby at a KKK rally in Beaufort, Carolina, 1965

Credit: Harry Benson

Copyright: © Harry Benson



"Some photographers, the camera helps them process the horror they're feeling" - David Friend



Another person that Benson was, well you could say, friendly with was Bobby Kennedy (the younger brother of JFK). He went on a family vacation with Bobby and managed to capture some really intimate moments of Bobby with his family, one of these photographs is a favourite of Kerry Kennedy (Bobby's daughter), where Kerry is sat at the bonfire with her father and she is looking up at him and he is looking down at her. Benson made it his mission to make sure that he was there for every part of Bobby's landmark moments, and accidentally in doing this, he witnessed his death, this then provided the world with the iconic photograph of Ethel Kennedy (fig.1).


(fig.1)







"I'm sure when I meet Bobby eventually, he'll understand"

- Harry Benson








Ethel Kennedy, Los Angeles, 1968.

Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.

Credit: Harry Benson

Copyright: © Harry Benson



"It was very important for me to cover the assassination until the very end" - Harry Benson






Former First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy with her children, leaving the funeral of Robert F Kennedy at St Patrick’s Cathedral, New York City, 8 June, 1968.

Credit: Harry Benson Copyright: © Harry Benson



Most people felt at ease and comfortable around Benson, in turn this helped him capture some of the world's most iconic photographs. Benson was hired to be the photographer to follow The Beatles around. He initially did not want the job as he had a trip planned to Africa, but he swiftly gave in. The Beatles old photographer was 'ugly', and this is why they chose Benson, as he was the one with the looks and charm. Bensons ability to virtually be invisible aided him to capture "The Pillow Fight", a moment that was captured simply of The Beatles having fun. (fig.2)


(fig.2)







The Beatles in the early hours after a concert in Paris, 1964

Credit: Harry Benson

Copyright: © Harry Benson



A section in the documentary that I absolutely related to was when Benson stated that he couldn't work in a studio as you wouldn't get to see the "true person", his photographs were never posed. I have only ever experienced shooting in a studio setting once, but I could not get to grips with how forced and rehearsed everything was. The smiles and laughter were fake, and it just wasn't an enjoyable experience, but not only that, I found it really difficult to connect with the subject.


When Benson was at the height of his career, it is important to remember that there weren't any autofocus cameras, and every winning shot that he took in the scuffle and bufflehead of the moment was done manually. It required him to make decisions instantly as to what was in focus or out of focus.

(fig.3) Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger at lunch in The Factory, New York, 1977. ‘He stunk, as if he never washed. 
It was his wig, 
I think. It’s one of the best pictures I’ve done’

Credit: Harry Benson Copyright: © Harry Benson


As you can see in the image above (fig.3), it depicts two images on a film roll and they are presented side by side, as they were taken, to form one singular image. The film roll numbers were left on the final image (13 and 14) to show that the shots were taken consecutively, and you can see how Benson decided to have Warhol in focus in 13, this made me question what he was thinking, and Jagger in focus in 14 had me wondering whether she was posing for Warhol or just looking, did someone call her? This is one of my favourite presentations that I have ever seen, and it emits such power, but then also mystery.


All in all, the documentary made me fall head over heels in love with Harry Benson's work and I have been able to take so much inspiration from not only from his work, but from his work ethic, to not be shy and worry about what people think, and to just do it in the moment regardless. He is able to express the inexpressible emotions with his photography.

"A great photograph can never happen again" - Harry Benson.




Quotes from the documentary that I felt a connection to and drew inspiration from:



"News was not immediate, the only way to really capture it was in pictures" - Bryant Gumbel




"The images are what counted the most and they were riveting" - Bryant Gumbel




"I was always able to leave my emotions behind" - Harry Benson




"I only talk through my photographs" - Harry Benson




"Pictures can take on a whole new meaning years later" - Harry Benson




"I would just wonder about parks, looking for pictures" - Harry Benson




"He who controls the images, controls the public mind" - Anon






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