Harry Benson's photographs have been seen all over the world and his accent is still straight out of Glasgow, but for most of his adult life, New York has been his home. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following One On 1 profile.
Can you pick a moment that changed your life? Photographer Harry Benson can — Paris, 1964. He took a photo the minute the Beatles, on the eve of their first trip to the United States, find out that "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was the number one song in America.
"It's my favorite photograph," says Benson. "It fits, it swings, it moves and it can never happen again. That picture couldn’t happen again, one second after I’d taken it. It gone, it’s a glimpse and gone forever."
The Beatles assignment was special to Benson because it brought him to America. In a sense, Benson's never left, as he has been a New Yorker since the mid-1960s.
From his Upper East Side apartment, Benson and his wife Gigi oversee his vast catalogue of photographs.
His latest book is a glossy collection entitled "New York, New York." At a book release party at Tiffany's, Benson said the city has never disappointed the immigrant from Scotland.
"New York is exactly what you think it's like," says Benson. "Other cities, other places don't quite come up, but New York City does."
Some of the people present at the party are in the book, including Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But Benson says the relationship between photographer and subject should not be so chummy.
"I’m not a friend. Whoever said I was friend, if you become a friend, the friend is going to call you up and say, 'Oh Harry, that picture of me in the bubble bath, please don’t use it,'" says Benson.
But occasionally a subject is hard to resist. In 1972, Benson developed a friendship with the world's chess champion, the enigmatic Bobby Fischer.
“He would call me and my wife would take the call and he would say, 'Tell him it’s his friend Bobby Fischer.' He always called me his friend," says Benson. "We would go out in the car and go for a walk and walk and walk. And we would see the horses, and the horses just came slowly up and Bobby would say, 'Harry, it likes me. It likes me.'"
Benson's camera has documented the rich spectrum of American life, from Truman Capote's famed "black and white" ball, to the civil rights movement.
He has photographed every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower. Benson was in Little Rock, Ark. in 1992 to take one of his most famous photographs, "The Clinton Kiss."
"They don’t quite meet. It’s stronger than actually meeting. When they meet, it’s over," says Benson.
He says he likes to get away from the pack.
"Photography has never been a team sport to me," Benson says.
So as President Richard Nixon was resigning in 1974, Benson moved ever so slightly to get his shot.
"I was looking for Mrs. Nixon. I knew that she was much more sensitive than people had said. Sure, I got a little tear in her eye."
Perhaps his most compelling set of photographs is of a man who wanted to be president, Robert F. Kennedy.
"Bobby, I liked him, but he was shot literally in front of me," says Benson.
Benson photographed Kennedy during a family vacation, on the presidential campaign trail in 1968 and at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, where Kennedy was assassinated.
"[Ethel Kennedy] went straight for my camera screaming, 'Give him air, give him air,'" says Benson.
Asked whether he wondered whether he should have taken pictures at that moment, Benson says, "Oh no, the thing in your mind is, 'Don’t fail now, fail tomorrow.' This is it. I got to cover it. I haven’t been sent to be a nice person. It’s out of your hands."
Long before Benson's photographs were seen around the world, he had a dream to be a soccer goalie, a dream he's had a tough time giving up.
"It’s just about six weeks ago I realized I wasn’t going to make the Scottish team, you know," says Benson.
His first published work came when he sent a picture of a deer at the Glasgow zoo to the local paper. Months later on the train, he saw the picture in the paper.
"There was a gentleman sitting beside me, and he opens the Evening Times next to me. And there’s this picture, big, the deer. But you know, that feeling hasn’t left me," says Benson. "If I take a good picture, I sit and look at it."
After working in Scotland, he made his way to London and the home of Britain's pugnacious newspaper business, Fleet Street.
"You just didn’t want to beat your opposition, you wanted to kill them," says Benson. "When I came to America, working with Life [magazine], that was like a dude ranch in comparison. You know, everyone was nice, gentlemanly. This was unheard where I came from. It was like wild dogs."
Benson has photographed many of his subjects in quiet, peaceful, even reflective moments. But he's also worked in danger zones: Somalia, Bosnia, riots in America. He has found a way to keep his work and stay alive.
"The quickest thing I can do is just get that film out of my camera and put it in my sock," Benson says. "Get it off of you, because if someone comes to you with a gun and asks for your film, I want the photograph for Life. I don’t want to die for it."
When Caroline Kennedy got married in 1986, she could have called any photographer in the world. She called Harry Benson.
When her mother called, Benson thought it was a prank. So he asked Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis a question.
"'Where did you have lunch yesterday?' And she said, 'It was in Mortimer’s, the third table from the window, by the wall.' She said that, and I said, 'What can I do for you, Mrs. Onassis?'" says Benson.
His photographs have taken him all over the world and introduced him to the influential and the powerful. The camera has certainly taken the boy out of Scotland, but the reverse might not be true.
"That enters my head all the time, 'What’s some scruff from Glasgow doing here? Talking to this big shot and even having an opinion with him?' It’s crazy," Benson says.