“This isn’t my real work,” photojournalist Harry Benson told Off the Record, gesturing at a wall of his photographs.
He was surrounded by intimate candids of bold-face names, taken over the course of his 40-year career at magazines like Life and Vanity Fair. All together they tell a colorful history of New York society, but he’d rather be known for his photographs of U.S. presidents.
“Every one since Eisenhower,” he said.
Even his lesser work was enough to draw a crowd to Hearst Tower Thursday, where, despite freezing rain and about a hundred other holiday parties occurring across the city, Mr. Benson was toasted by former subjects, like Muffie Potter Aston, members of the Hearst family, such as Gillian Hearst-Shaw and Anne Hearst, and Jay McInerney, who qualifies as both. (He also wrote the book’s introduction.)
The tower’s mezzanine had been converted into a private exhibition of photographs from Mr. Benson’s forthcoming tome, New York, New York, hosted by Town & Country editor in chief Jay Fielden. The book’s text was written by Quest and Q magazine society writer Hilary Geary Ross, who said deciding which photographs to include had been a highly daunting process.
“There are too many good characters in New York,” she said. (She and her husband, the leveraged buyout billionaire Wilbur Ross, did end up making the cut.)
Mr. Ross added that her decision process had been to lay out all the large prints in contention across their penthouse floor.
“All across multiple rooms,” he said.
Mario Buatta, the “Prince of Chintz” who designed the Ross’s Upper East Side abode, approached us, eager to share one of his own snapshots. In his wallet he had a blurry, black and white ink-jet printout of a young boy, no older than 10, smoking a cigarette.
“I was a precocious child,” Mr. Buatta said.
Host Mr. Fielden’s Town & Country editor’s portrait was taken by Mr. Benson, and featured prominently in the exhibit, just above a photo of Mayor Bloomberg riding the subway.
We found the former Men’s Vogue editor by the bar, dressed in a tidy checked suit a shade not far off from his coppery hair. He was mired in polite conversation with a former freelancer, Warren Kolbacker, who explained that he moonlights as an oyster farmer.
“The gentleman farmer,” Mr. Fielden remarked, “that’s very T&C.”
Another self-styled man of the land, the British rancher/hotelier Nicholas Gold, lurked nearby, with a Stetson on his head and a publicist on his arm.
Off the Record extricated Mr. Fielden from his supplicants long enough to ask what it was like to be photographed by Mr. Benson.
“I felt a little sheepish about it,” he admitted, adding that he had been put at ease by Mr. Benson and his low-maintenance process.
“He didn’t like it at first, he didn’t even want to use it,” Mr. Benson told Off the Record of Mr. Fielden’s portrait. “But then his wife tells him that it’s his best photograph, he looks natural.”
Mr. Benson said the feeling commonly afflicts the subjects of photographs, including him.
“You look stupid until a year later, when you think, ‘Not bad. What was I complaining about?’”