Newport is wild about Harry… Harry Benson, CBE, that is, the iconic Scottish-born photographer known for capturing pivotal events and people of import. Benson held court at a packed Redwood Library on Wednesday evening, answering questions and patiently signing copies of his book, Persons of Interest, also the name of the exhibit. The event was moderated by Leora Maltz-Leca, Department Head, Theory & History of Art & Design at Rhode Island School of Design.
Benson doesn’t consider his work art, but instead as a vehicle to inform, whether it be events or people. When asked how he gets such personal and insightful photos of people, he laughingly shrugged and told the crowd in his lilting Scottish brogue, “I’m a genius.” He later said, “To get the shot…you wait and eventually you wear the bastard down.” One can imagine that it’s his self-effacing humor that enables him get the shot on many occasions.
His favorite subject was the Beatles, he said. It was the Beatles tour that first brought him to America where he has lived ever since. He loved their music, and the photos he
took of them were so happy that they often cheer him up if ever he is down. His trickiest subject was the Queen of England, he admitted, because she is so truly exalted. He appeared very much in awe of her. He is proud of the photo he captured of her in 2014 at Buckingham Palace with her red box of government papers.
When asked if he knows when a photo is going to be great, he answered, “I don’t think it’s great until you think it’s great.”
The exhibit, which is open through October 10th and is part of the Library’s 275 anniversary celebration, flows into the lobby with Benson’s many photos. To name just a few of the subjects: Bianca Jagger with Andy Warhol, Andrew Wyeth, the Beatles, Ali,
Jackie Kennedy, Truman Copote, Dolly Parton, Greta Garbo, Nixon and the Queen of England. The exhibit contains nearly forty large-scale photographs drawn from Benson’s private collection, and the show spans his more than 60-year career as a photojournalist working for such publications as Time, Vanity Fair, Paris Match and Life.
Benson is most likely to be first remembered as the photographer who documented the Beatles’ 1964 arrival in France and the US, and in this exhibit, he presents a handful of indelible images of the Fab Four. The show serves as a preface to Benson’s forthcoming 18th book Paul (Taschen, July 2022), which celebrates Paul McCartney’s 80th birthday.
While the mirth and excitement of Beatlemania first secured his professional trajectory, Benson also “took life by surprise,” to echo Vertov, and documented its ups and its downs with surely more strategy than happenstance. For he seems to have snapped virtually every searing moment of the civil rights era and beyond.
The show features an astounding string of the most iconic candids of national trauma: MLK leading a charge against oppression; Ethel Kennedy raising her bloody hand moments after the assassination of her husband and Benson’s friend RFK; Jackie Kennedy and her sister in mourning; and a forlorn Richard Nixon at the moment of his resignation. Likewise, Benson has photographed every U.S. President since Eisenhower, creating an unparalleled catalog of the rarest glimpses into the extraordinary lives of world leaders.
If Benson can be said to have been everywhere that mattered, it has been especially so in the world of entertainment and popular culture, where for over a half century he has documented a who’s who: from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson to Andrew Wyeth. Even in more constructed portrait close-ups of figures as Ian Fleming or Diana Vreeland—just as in willfully spontaneous snaps bordering on party pics, such as those depicting the range of celebrities who attended Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball— Benson reveals an unerring eye for detail and framing to capture what
Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment,” the flash juncture that fixes an incident as historic. It is a spontaneous moment of intuition, made at once epic and natural by the practiced eye of the veteran photographer. No less than Federico Fellini recognized Benson’s ineffable skill in these exact terms: “[Benson’s work] leaves such an impression of naturality (sic), of natural moment. It is a little magic…”
Redwood Executive Director and exhibition co-curator Benedict Leca commented, “Coming after our 2019-20 Russell Lee exhibition—another photographer with a knack for special moments—one could hardly think of another figure whose work holds so much historical impact, particularly in the context of the Redwood’s 275th. I want to thank the Bensons, and also acknowledge the work of co-curator, photographer Sam Bolton, in enabling us to bring these works to Newport.”
“Harry Benson: ‘Persons of Interest’”
June 29th-October 10th
50 Bellevue Ave
Newport, RI 02840
Admission to the Redwood and the exhibition is free.
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