Tuesday, 18 July 2017

Harry Benson: Shoot First

Photographer Harry Benson is passionate about the pictures he takes
I really enjoy watching documentaries, not just for the subject, but also see how it is portrayed, or how the story is told.

Fun image of The Beatles playing around in their hotel room
On the way back to Hong Kong I watched a few documentaries, one of which was called Harry Benson: Shoot First that was released last year.

The Scottish-born photographer is now 87 years old and to say he's had a colourful career is an understatement.

In the documentary, viewers get to have a first-hand view of him, hearing his thoughts and feelings when he shot particular subjects or assignments, as well as testimonials from many people he has shot, or talking to journalists about why the photos Benson took were so "iconic" and that they were crucial documents to history.




Benson never knew he would become a well-known photographer -- he just took whatever assignments were given to him to make a living. When he was a child he didn't do well in school so he took a job as a delivery boy.

His father built him a small hut in the back yard, which became his darkroom and in one of the scenes Benson visits his childhood home and the hut is still there, though the current owners or inhabitants aren't there to explain what it's used for now.

An iconic image of Nancy and Ronald Reagan
In 1964 The Beatles were so hot in their first trip to the US and Benson was there to cover them by fluke because apparently the paper's top photographer wasn't good looking enough to be with them.

He caught them in fantastic poses, most particularly having a fun pillow fight on the bed of a hotel room. Another features the band encountering Muhammed Ali, who had no shame in promoting himself and proclaiming that he was beautiful.

From there Benson became known for shooting celebrities, everyone from Elizabeth Taylor before and after her brain surgery, Michael Jackson, chess champion Bobby Fischer.

He also took pictures of Robert F Kennedy when he was a senator, and then happened to be next to him when Kennedy was assassinated on June 5, 1968. While it was hard for Benson to take those photographs, it was important to get the images to preserve history.

One of the pictures Benson took is of a terrified Ethel Kennedy with her hand out, trying to block photographs of her in the moment. It's haunting, but also immediate.

The endless sea of huts of starving people in Ethiopia
Other famous photos he took were on the cover of Life magazine of Ronald Reagan with his wife Nancy dancing, Winston Churchill, and Boris Yeltsin.

Benson didn't want to be just known as a celebrity photographer -- he also took pictures of the civil rights movement with Martin Luther King Jr and how blacks were lynched -- he risked his life documenting these horrific attacks on people because of their skin colour.

On the other hand he also went to document the mass starvation of children in Ethiopia in the 1980s, where the journalist Benson was with recalled how the babies and children were so malnourished and died daily, making it such a heartbreaking story to cover.

But it wasn't all seriousness for Benson -- he had a wry humour and always quick on his feet. Getting access to chess prodigy Fischer was very difficult, but somehow Benson managed to do it. He shot pictures of the quirky American playing underwater in a swimming pool and outside where wild horses roamed.

Bobby Fischer nuzzled by a wild horse in Iceland
At first Fischer seemed nervous to be around these animals, unsure of what to do, but Benson recalled telling him the horses loved him, and sure enough, a white horse came up to Fischer who was sitting on the ground and nuzzled his head and the American was so surprised the horse was so soft.

Benson's career spans over 60 years and one can tell he loves what he does and it comes so naturally to him. He credits his Texan-born wife Gigi for his success, helping him archive his work and is also his business manager.

It's fascinating to see how he is really focused on his subjects, trying to put them at ease, and how they trust that he will take the best pictures of them.

Harry Benson: Shoot First
Released 2016
Directed by Justin Bare and Matthew Miele
1 hr 27 mins


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