Revered Photographer Harry Benson Talks Iconic Shots – Rolling Stone
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Shooting Rock History: Revered Photographer Harry Benson Talks Iconic Shots

As a documentary on his life hits theaters, legendary photojournalist tells stories behind images of Beatles, Michael Jackson, Willie Nelson and more

Harry Benson talks photographs

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Though his pictures of everyone from the Beatles to Michael Jackson made him one of the most beloved culture photographers of the 20th century, Harry Benson isn't phased by the icons he’s captured. In his heart, he's always been a photojournalist covering the news, whether it was the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy or the star-packed "We Are The World" recording session. In fact, in 1964, he was on his way to a story in Africa when he got the call that he would be following a band called the Beatles during their American debut – and it wasn't until that so-called music story became the biggest news story on the planet that he realized he'd accepted the right assignment. It's also what makes his photographs so memorable: they're surprisingly candid and humanizing in a way that's often lost in more controlled photography settings. "I hate studio pictures," he told Rolling Stone earlier this week. "I like everything out of control. Like myself!" 

It's that lack of reverence for fame that also puts those very celebrities at ease in his presence – all the better to capture them at their most natural. In a new documentary about his life and work, Harry Benson: Shoot First, his famous subjects-turned-admirers, from Donald Trump to Sharon Stone, discuss his easy humor and his ability to get anyone to open up – a skill helped by his Scottish accent and his way of speaking in a sing-song trill, even when he's being brutally honest. Benson sat down in his Manhattan home for a no-holds-barred conversation with Rolling Stone to tell the stories behind some of his iconic rock & roll photographs.

Photograph by @HarryBenson

The Beatles

Paul and John were at the piano, the song they were doing was 'I Feel Fine.' I had to get Ringo in there, so he went back to his room and got two sticks and hit a table – he was the odd man out there. 

I liked John. I know there were mixed things, but even with the mixed things I liked him. He wasn't a snob. If he saw you anywhere, he would come over. There wasn't anything of, "I don't have to talk to you." I saw that with different people. But John did a nice thing for me, professionally. When they were [in New York] going to The Ed Sullivan Show, they all jumped in a car at Newark and John opened the door – because I was in the crowd – and he said, 'Come on, Harry! You're with us!' Nice, you know what I mean? And that's allowing me to do my job and allowed me to take some good pictures. That's what John was like. He did things like that.

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Beatles

This was the night they were told they were number one in America. It was basically the time that the Beatles broke through. I remember we were sitting in Paris one day and different people were coming in to interview Paul and John and occasionally George – if you've got half an hour with the Beatles, you're not going to talk to Ringo, that's not who your editors are looking for – and I'm sitting with one of their handlers who went to college with John, and John is talking and the friend turns to me and says, "Now you see who the leader of the Beatles is." Meaning that you can see John speaking so well, being so funny. Following day, another reporter is up there and Paul is doing the talking and the friend turns to me and said, "Remember what I said yesterday? Now Paul is the leader." You couldn't tell who the leader was! But if anything, to me, the leader was Paul. Even in the photograph, it's Paul who's holding the pillow high, making the picture. Paul has got the whole drama of it and loved show business. John didn't.

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Frank Sinatra

Getting onstage with him was the only way I was going to get a good picture of him. I knew he had a bad temper but he was laughing, and I thought, "I'm just going to go up there." And he said something smart-alecky, he said, "Nobody shares the stage with me!" But he was laughing. The picture’s alright, it’s not great but it’s better than what I would have gotten down below the stage. I got the bastard in a good mood. I thought he was a nasty piece of shit. Oh nasty! Couldn't help himself. He was like Rudy Giuliani, that kind of nastiness. You know?

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Dolly Parton

I photographed her all over the place, all over her home. I liked her because she's got good manners. Most of these southern entertainers do have good manners, I think it’s maybe because of religious stuff. They'd make you a cup of coffee and a donut. She’s funny. She knows why I'm there. I'm there to take photographs. I mean, she was just doing that and I was going from one room to another and it was basically like, "Dolly, just stay there." I liked the light. It's one of my favorite pictures. You know right away who it is. I like pictures to be self-explanatory.

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Willie Nelson

I was doing a story on him for Life magazine at his home ranch – more of a home than a ranch – in Colorado. I was there all day, and I was working and he was doing different things and he took a bath and made it a bubble bath. But there was somebody else in the bath with him – his wife, Connie. I went over her shoulder and shot a picture of them both together, but this was the one they chose. I always liked the one of them in the bath together. But I've always found him easy. Some people find him difficult – I think he's just old and he can't be bothered.

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Yoko and Sean Lennon

They built this thing opposite the Dakota, where [Yoko and John] used to walk. I just had them sitting down there, and then had them walking through Strawberry Fields. It was a nice little thing with Sean, a nice little boy. 

When I met Yoko, I realized why John loved her. Because there were a lot of negative things said about how she broke up the Beatles, which I don't think was the reason. John really wanted out, and then Paul wanted out, and when Paul wanted out there was no turning back.

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen

That was at U.S.A. for Africa. I was the only photographer in there all night, the whole thing, where they recorded "We Are the World." There was a thing at the door that Quincy Jones put up, "Leave your egos at the door." And everyone was very relaxed and talking. It was very friendly, nice – although at the beginning, they come out with some Zulu song playing, and Waylon Jennings said, "I'm not singing this shit," and walked off the whole set. He walked off and he never came back. And Willie Nelson said to me, "Did you see Waylon walking away?" and I said, "Yeah, I got a picture of it!"

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Ron Wood

Ron Wood was a nice guy. I was doing a story on Elvis and Graceland. Billy Joel was there, and Christie Brinkley came by, Joan Jett and Roy Orbison and one of Elvis’s old friends, Carl Perkins. Lisa Marie Presley was there – they were honored to be at Graceland, you know. This is where it all started, in a way, they felt. They paid that kind of homage to it, you know what I mean? But it really was a hellish place inside. When you saw it, you knew that Elvis was really stupid. There wasn't any books to be seen about, it was just a lot of mirrors – which were aggravating. It's hard to take pictures around. That's Elvis's pink Cadillac.

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Beastie Boys

That's also at Elvis's house. We had everyone arranged to come there for that shoot, but not them. They were just there! There was a lot of banging of an old drum downstairs, and someone said it was the Beastie Boys. They had just appeared on the music scene, and I photographed them even though they weren't in the schedule. I may have vaguely heard about them.

Photograph by @HarryBenson

Michael Jackson

I always got on with Michael Jackson. I liked him. He was very thoughtful, and Neverland was really quite a lovely place – well-run, nice flowers and that. The creepiness had started then, but my way is that I photograph anything I see. And what you see should inform. I'm following a camera, and they know why you're there. And he took me in the house, which the publicists and all of them said, "No way do you go in the house!" They kept saying that. But Michael couldn't care less. I photographed him a few times and he never gave me any trouble. The people around him would give me problems, but I knew how to get around them.

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