Photographer Harry Benson: Living for the moment

A new documentary, “Harry Benson: Shoot First,” explores the photographer’s life and close encounters with such timeless celebrities as the Beatles and Muhammad Ali.

Harry Benson

Photographer Harry Benson has built a solid career from seeking out moments in time, and snagging them for posterity.

“A good photograph can’t happen again,” he explains, while relaxing in his Upper East Side apartment in New York City. “Anything you can do five minutes later, five hours later or five years later, it’s not a great picture.”

Born in 1929 in Glasgow, Scotland, Benson was a Fleet Street shooter when he came to America with The Beatles in 1964, an assignment that gave him incredible access. With his gift for seizing upon the spontaneity of his subjects, Benson captured the blossoming Beatlemania in all its manic joy.

“That’s the kind of photography I want,” he told CBS News. 

A good photograph can be simple, he says, but what attracts him is movement: “It’s got a life to it. It hasn’t been frozen, like there is no life to it.

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Harry Benson.

Magnolia Pictures

“I want movement. I hate studio pictures -- it’s stupid.”

He’s photographed movie stars, rockers and presidents (for Life Magazine and others), and documented the stories of refugees and outcasts. His images -- so full of life -- now fill a new documentary, “Harry Benson: Shoot First,” which features the raconteur as he spins tales of his illustrious subjects.

The film, directed by Matthew Miele and Justin Bare (whose credits include “Scatter My Ashes at Bergdorf’s”), manages to capture the spontaneity and joy on the other side of the lens. The spirit of the ‘60s, ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s comes through in a blizzard of shots -- some iconic and immediately recognizable, others rare and haunting. There’s Jackie O. with her eyes peeking out of a ski mask; Ronald and Nancy Reagan dancing on the cover of Vanity Fair; contact sheets of Jack Nicholson bursting with laughter; Donald Trump beaming as he cradles a million dollars in cash in his hands.

Though he’s modest about calling his photographs art (“When I hear the word ‘art,’ I go for my revolver”), there is an art to Benson’s ability to see his subjects in unconventional ways, with intimacy, intelligence and humor.

How? “You see openings,” he said.

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Hillary Rodham Clinton and Bill Clinton.

Harry Benson

Which is not to say he’s beyond using his gift of persuasion, as when, in a Paris hotel room, he playfully suggested the Beatles repeat a pillow fight they’d described having a couple days earlier when Benson (and his camera) weren’t around; or when he spotted King Juan Carlos of Spain carrying two puppies by the scruff of their necks to their kennel. “I thought, ‘God, that’s a good picture.’ I go back there, I leave the [kennel] door open, and they all run out” -- forcing the King to repeat his dog-rousting duties.  “I got the picture! It wasn’t staged at all -- he did it. But it was ‘helped along.’”

Perhaps most surprising is that, for a photographer who craves movement, Benson is not that attracted to sports photography. 

“I did a bit -- I was crazy about soccer, I would have played soccer if a team had signed me! But if you did sports, you’d get pigeonholed into doing it all the time, and there’d be nothing worse than being at Yankee Stadium every night. And also sports is repetitive; if you didn’t get a good picture of sliding into third base one night, you’d get it the next night.”

While his lens may get in close, Benson is careful not to get too close to his subjects. “When I’m finished, I’m finished. And if the phone goes, we don’t pick it up, because I know what they’re going to ask: ‘Oh, Harry, don’t use that picture of me in the bubble bath,’ and bang! goes a good photograph, because I’ve got a new friend who isn’t [really] a friend. Until it’s published, [talking to them] is not in my favor.”

Just as he captures celebrities at their most unguarded, Benson is also adept at catching the revealing moments of non-celebrities, as when he was invited to photograph a Ku Klux Klan rally in Beaufort, S.C., in 1965. His image of a woman in Klan regalia nursing a baby is both maternal and horrifying.

In that instance, being from overseas was an advantage. Benson said he earned the trust of Robert Shelton, the Imperial Wizard, by offering to show people of Scotland a rally. “Bobby Shelton brought me, which didn’t do me any harm at all to go in with the Imperial Wizard,” Benson recalled. “He said, ‘Harry, I’ll be leaving at nine o’clock, and I think you should leave shortly after, because the boys can get a bit excitable.”

And his secret for not making his subjects feel threatened by his camera? “You move in and out quickly with them, in a non-aggressive manner, not stepping up as if it’s a firing squad.”

In an era of paparazzi photographers, that sounds downright blasphemous.

“Harry Benson: Shoot First” opens in theatres on Friday, December 9 (see screening locations here), and will also be available on demand, and via Amazon Video and iTunes. The film is not rated.

To watch a trailer for “Harry Benson: Shoot First” click on the video player below.

Harry Benson: Shoot First - Official Trailer by Magnolia Pictures & Magnet Releasing on YouTube

     
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  • David Morgan

    David Morgan is a senior editor at CBSNews.com and cbssundaymorning.com.