Acclaimed photojournalist Harry Benson has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. The New York-based Glaswegian got his big break on Fleet Street when he crashed a party attended by the son of Lord Beaverbrook—the indomitable owner of the Daily Express in the 1950s. In America, he achieved fame in 1964, when he shuttered the lens the moment John Lennon instigated that iconic pillow fight.
At his Upper East Side home, which he shares with his wife GiGi and their two dogs—one aging pug and one energetic dachshund to be precise—Mr. Benson, now a spry 85-year-old, regaled us with tales from his storied career, from photographing IRA soldiers during the Troubles to rubbing shoulders with billionaires, captured in his new book, Palm Beach People.
Your new book focuses on wealthy socialites who reside in Palm Beach. What kept drawing you there? My career has been covering anything at all—I mean, I was next to Bobby Kennedy when he was shot. But, you know, I’d do anything. I don’t care what. Here, it’s a social thing. We don’t know these people. Who are they? There are more billionaires living there than in any other place in the world. And in such a small, trusted community. The way I felt when I was doing it was that Palm Beach is on sea level, and with one big storm it could vanish—this book might be all we’ve got left.
You’ve photographed everyone, from President Reagan to the IRA. Have you ever felt intimidated? I [give] everybody respect. I always dress well, because there is nothing in the photographers’ handbook that says I must turn up looking like a maintenance man. As if I’m here to fix the plumbing. I know the reason I got onto the second floor of The White House so often was because I wasn’t dressed like a photographer. I put lenses in my pocket and very rarely take an assistant.
What were your most dangerous assignments? Being with the IRA [was] dangerous. But it wasn’t the IRA who were dangerous, it was if the Brits caught you.
Didn’t the CIA question you afterwards? They wanted to talk to me and I said, “You must be off your head … I would be off [the IRA’s] Christmas list.”
You photograph so many people, is there still anyone you’re desperate to get a few minutes with? Putin. Because you know he’s a menace, he’s interesting and he’s got more nuclear weapons than we have. He is a real presence. He is a Nixon.
Have some figures stuck in your mind more than others? I liked Nixon. No small talk, but he would come over and speak to you. It was nice—you always left him wagging your tail that you got a good picture.
I once read that you said Annie Leibovitz makes her subjects look like Madame Tussauds. She’s terrible. It’s the same picture all the time. And it’s all … it’s perfect. My idea of a picture is that it can never happen again. It’s gone forever. It’s a glimpse. It’s that poem I used to get at school by Robert Louis Stevenson—“and each a glimpse and gone forever.” A good photograph can never happen again—the Beatles will never have that pillow fight again.
Your iconic 1992 photograph of Bill and Hillary Clinton cuddling on a hammock is a great example of that. How did you get that close to them? Quickly. It happened quickly. I like that picture because, if Hillary became president, for one week I would make some money on that picture.
As a fellow ex-pat, if there was one Scottish import you could bring over to New York what would it be? My best friend. You know, someone I can talk to. The trouble with Americans is every conversation has got to mean something.