Beatles photographer caught cultural revolution on film

NEW YORK -- No one was any closer when the Beatles got off the plane than Harry Benson. There he was, a step behind Ringo, a 34-year-old photographer for London's Daily Express, just worried about keeping his job.

Benson says he thinks his photographs nailed it. 

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When the Beatles got off the plane in New York, Harry Benson was a step behind Ringo.
Harry Benson
 "Because the Beatles are being funny and being young," he says.

 

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Harry Benson
CBS News
 The pictures weren't just good -- they were iconic. In a Paris hotel room, just before the flight to America, Benson shot the famous pillow fight, which was actually a pillow celebration.

"They get a message that says, 'We're number one in America -- I Want to Hold Your Hand,'" Benson says. "About a half an hour later, they come in with another -- they are going on 'The Ed Sullivan Show.'"

Two-and-a-half months after President John F. Kennedy's assassination, America was just starting to smile again. For the next two weeks, Benson provided a look at the birth of Beatlemania from inside the limo.

Complete coverage of the Beatles' U.S. invasion

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The famous "pillow fight" photo, which Benson shot in a Paris hotel, was actually a pillow celebration.
Harry Benson
  When he looks at the pictures now, Benson jokes he sees "a brilliant photographer."

"It's energy, this is what they looked like, this was excitement," he says.

He captured John with the wife few people knew he had, Paul taking it all in, and he brokered a meeting in Miami with another star about to explode onto the scene: Muhammad Ali, known then as Cassius Clay.  

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Benson brokered a meeting with Muhammad Ali.
Harry Benson
 "He said to Paul McCartney, 'Are you the pretty one? But you're not as pretty as me,'" Benson recalls.

Benson would go on to take portraits of presidents, document the civil rights struggle and be standing feet from Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated. But 50 years later, considering his life's work, his photos of the Beatles are still second to none.

 

 "Honestly, I am quite proud of them," he says. "I got myself in a position to take good photographs."

And, he adds, "I kept my job."

And anyone who wants to know what it looks like when the world changes is thankful he did.

CBS News is marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first American television appearance with a live media event on Sunday, Feb. 9 at the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York. The event will be live streamed on CBSNews.com and CBSNewYork.com/50YearsLater.


  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.

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