Harry Benson sat tall, green pocket square peeking out of his sports jacket pocket, on the blood red sofa of an ocean view suite at the Faena hotel, overlooking Miami Beach. It was almost as if a memory ran over his gaze. His beautiful wife of some 63 years, Gigi—who is as adorable and elegant and simply charming as her two syllables suggest—sat just across, in an arm chair, ready to fill in any blanks that needed filling. You see, she’s been running the Benson show for quite some time. Not a single piece of film is reviewed without the aid of her watchful eye. She let’s us know that the film for which we have come together to celebrate, is currently available OnDemand, on iTunes and streaming on Amazon. Aptly named, “Harry Benson: Shoot First,” the film highlights the illustrious career of Benson and truthfully does a pretty great job of letting on to just how enchanting and hysterical he is; because he’s just unapologetically himself.
It seams as though the sun gleaming off of the sand transports him and he starts to share: “Miami was important to me,” he says. “I came to America with The Beatles and about a week later we were in Miami for the Ed Sullivan show. They had about four days off and wanted to find something to do. We went to the beach but one day I was watching television in my room at the Deauville Hotel and I see this boxer named Cassius Clay talking about how beautiful he was and how strong he was and I thought, ‘That would be a beautiful picture.’ Of course he had not become Muhammad Ali yet. I went to go see him and he said he knew who The Beatles were and he would love to see them. I go back to The Beatles with everything set to shoot them and suddenly John Lennon said that he didn’t want to meet him because he had a big mouth and he was going to get beaten by his opponent, Sonny Liston. So, I go see Sonny who had just finished training and is sitting there, undoing his boots and tells me, ‘I don’t want to meet those bums.’ So I go back to The Beatles, with a limousine and pick them up. Of course they think they’re going to see Sonny but I took them to the Ffith Street Gym. Cassius Clay is there and completely dwarfs them. He put them in their place; having them lay down and call him the most beautiful. They gave me a lot of good photographs. Afterwards The Beatles wouldn’t speak to me because he really rode them like no one had done before.”
I later found out this happened about one month in to having met and begun touring with The Beatles. The anecdote put me quickly up to speed on the reasoning behind the title of the film. It really was what Benson was all about. Shooting first.
We laugh for a bit and talk about the thin line between friendship and professionalism, a topic he very vocal about distinguishing between. “I don’t become friendly with them,” he says. “I don’t want to know them after.” Don’t misconstrue this so as to think that Benson isn’t friendly. The long time husband and father of two is absolutely kind and charming, he just came to age without Caller ID and instead had to employ a different kind of screening tactic. Don’t get too close and don’t answer the phone. “If you’re friendly [with them] then they can phone up and say I don’t want you to run that photo of me in the bubble bath and then you have a problem because it’s a friend.” It’s an example he’s often quoted using. That bubble bath photo was of Willie Nelson. Basically if Benson shoots you in a bubble bath, you really can’t change your mind. Most don’t. In fact he’s quite trusted. The man is amongst what I imagine to be a very select few to document Dolly Parton putting her face on. And the only one Elizabeth Taylor would ask to see her in her hospital room, bald, post brain surgery for a tumor removal. I think it’s the honesty about him. The way he approaches every moment with such respect for its individual existence. And that’s really what this day is all about; celebrating an amalgamation of individually existing moments that he’s been able to capture.
Remembering them of course brought nostalgia.
“It’s sad,” he says. “I wouldn’t have done it if it wasn’t for my wife,” he persists. Blaming reasons such as: “It’s too much of a bother;” or “Too much work!” But also letting on that some of the melancholy comes from knowing that many of those brilliantly special situations will never happen again. That’s why you must catch them. “You see, I don’t really care about people’s feelings.” It sounds harsh at first but really makes perfect sense. “There is only one point of view and that has to be yours. If someone says: ‘you have to see their point of view; they’re not feeling well today;’ or ‘They’re not up to it and want to do it another day;’ I say, ‘No, we’ll do it now.’ It’s your point of view. If you have an off day or a hangover, I could give a shit.”
An opinion perhaps formed after much time spent covering the considerably less glitzy. In a refugee camp, the choice to be in an off mood is not a luxury many enjoy. And Benson knows, he’s shot at many. Which brings him back to the subject of the fine line of friendship. “Would people be asking me to dinner or wanting to be with me if they didn’t think I could do them some good? The answer is no. They wouldn’t bother,” he says. I suppose a little bit of distance allows him to be objective.
There was one friendship he held on to; however. Bobby Fisher’s. I mention having heard about their closeness and wonder aloud what it was like to interact with what I assumed was a different kind of brain. “That’s right! He was the cleverest person; and I was the only person he was talking to. I think one of the reasons was that I knew nothing about chess. We would talk about Muhammad Ali or football or something. If anyone spoke to him about chess he would call them a moron. Because they were morons, compared to him.” A great many of the men and women who he has shot have been so incredibly special. And not just to Benson but to the world. Take as an example that Benson has shot every president since Eisenhower. That’s a huge deal. He agrees: “It’s history! If he’s giving me an hour, that’s an hour of history—you’ve got to do the best with that hour.” Tales and recounts of such moments in history are delightful to hear first hand. Although some quite scary. On the subject of Robert Kennedy’s assassination he remembers: “Bobby was a yard away.” With five people having been shot around him, he was switching film; like a fearless warrior front-lining battle just to document that piece of history. “You do things like that because you’re ambitious. You have to do it. It’s ambition that makes you want to do things that you know are stupid,” he announces with a matter-of-factness that almost makes you believe that if ambitious enough you would do the same. Ambitious enough and married to Gigi I suppose. He acknowledges her mammoth role in his life once again: “I was fortunate that I always had a great wife who never said to me, ‘Don’t go; don’t go!’. Like when she would get a call from the Irish Republican Army, she knew it was going to be dangerous but she never tried to stop me.” Gigi, in all her humility shies away from the credit and turns instead to innocent youth as logic. “It doesn’t hit you until afterwards. I was either stupid or something because I didn’t think it was that scary at the time. Obviously we didn’t know Robert Kennedy was going to get shot that day. And he also didn’t tell me all the truth all the time!” We laugh and she recalls some other touch and go situations they maybe didn’t expected to escalate as they did: “He didn’t tell me he was going to be blindfolded by the IRA and taken on maneuvers and have to hide in the bushes from the English soldiers. That’s why I was not scared.”
He fills in the blanks: “I went on missions with the IRA in Northern Ireland and you find yourself in the bushes and you see a light coming through in the distance that you knew was a signal for danger. A 12-man British patrol passes and we got down into the mud. We could hear the buzz of their Walkie Talkies or whatever. When we finally got back to the safe house the IRA guys who were making breakfast were sure that the British patrol had seen us; and they didn’t want to get in a firefight. That’s when you say ‘please God, I’m sorry for swearing…’” I tell him that he was probably accompanied by a guardian angel because the world needed to enjoy his body of work. He smiles.
I ask him about an interview where he said we were living in the best times in the history of the world. Given I’m learning a bit about his adventures, I want to better understand what he means. People are in an upheaval over the recent elections and I’m curious as to his thoughts. He keeps it simple. “Today you don’t have to be hungry,” he explains. It’s true, I suppose; that we live in a time of options and opportunity. “I photographed Donald Trump for the last forty years,” he says. “I don’t like him.” It’s funny how to-the-point he is. There is no room for sugar-coating of finessing. The finesse is in the final product, but just as in with his photography, when delivering thoughts, he shoots first. I know that President Trump praises Benson on camera in the film but that Hillary Clinton did not participate. I ask him why.
“I know why,” he says. “It was because of Chelsea. I was in London and Vanity Fair wanted a picture of Chelsea who was at Oxford. And the reason they wanted a photo of her is that photos were popping up everywhere of her fallen in the streets in London. A few of them. I tried to tell her but she said she didn’t want to be photographed. I knew it was her mother who told her not to talk to the press, but I said ‘You’re better off having a nice picture taken of you, by me, at Oxford, than of you lying in the street. She posed for me but she never told her mother that I had made her that offer. I’ve never told anyone that story but that’s exactly why.” I’m honored to be privy to new information, of course. Chelsea Clinton, if you’re reading this, please let mama know that Mr. Benson was only looking out for your best interest.
Be it what it may, he always get the shot. He always seizes the moment—the raw, real moment. “I like to work quick, he explains. And I don’t like studio pictures; they’re dumb! I like a something that can’t happen again—a glimpse and gone forever, I like to say.” Of course at this point the film is about to be screened and I’m starting to feel like this is my moment soon to be gone forever. The firsthand recount of Harry Benson’s life, from Harry Benson. He tells me more about moments that won’t happen again like Capote’s Balls or people like Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger. “We don’t have those characters anymore, he says. Either people aren’t that bold anymore, or they’re just boring.”
I’m suddenly inspired to tap in to my boldest, not boring self and make some history in my own right but until then, at least we have the documented moments; the photos of the fleeting seconds; the shoot first, ask questions later archives of the great, Harry Benson