The Beatles by Harry Benson
Ringo in New York, February 1964 © Harry Benson
Harry with Paul, Ringo & George, Paris, January 1964, taken by John Lennon with Harry's camera © Harry Benson
Suffock Downs Racetrack, Boston, coming onto the field to the roar of the crowd, August 18, 1966 © Harry Benson
John and George, Copenhagen 1964 © Harry Benson
Beatles Composing, George V Hotel, Paris, January 1964 © Harry Benson
Paul gazing out of the window during filming for The Beatles' first movie, England 1964 © Harry Benson
The famous pillow fight photograph, 3am, George V Hotel, Paris 1964 © Harry Benson
Beatles Forever, 1966 © Harry Benson
Ringo getting to know the fans a little better, Miami Beach 1964 © Harry Benson
Harry Benson, The Beatles On The Road 1964-1966 (cover)
A sixties legend : Harry Benson, on the road with the Beatles
Taschen Books is publishing : The Beatles on the road 1965-1966 or the irresistible rise of this rock group from Liverpool. A story in pictures, taken by Harry Benson, an almost accidental guest on this delirious adventure of four boys conquering the world.
Harry Benson’s pictures, more than any literature, tell the story of this adolescent euphoria. Flipping through this book is like returning to one’s youth, a universe of laughs, joy, no worries and freedom. Like all fairy tales, even that of the Beatles would come to an end: the band separating… the assassination of John Lennon. Harry Benson was already working elsewhere, on other projects. But he knew he had lived two incredible years alongside this foursome that changed the course of history.
Harry Benson, born in Glasgow, began his career at the Hamilton Advertiser before settling on Fleet Street, the London media neighborhood, where he worked for the Daily Sketch and the Daily Express. After having followed the Beatles to the United States in 1964, he settled in New York. He was doing commissioned work for Life, Vanity Fair and People. He had taken pictures of all the American presidents since Eisenhower, was witness to the civil rights movement and the assassination of Robert Kennedy. After the Beatles, he shot some of the most important celebrities of the last 50 years, from Michael Jackson to Liz Taylor, including Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth who named him Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
From the famous pillow fight at the Georges V hotel to the hysterical young female crowds, from TV studios to backstage, Benson’s camera captured everything. That is what is in this superb black and white picture book. For fans and those who are nostalgic. In this interview, conducted on the occasion of the book’s release, the photographer talks about certain historical moments, and evokes the marvels of Paul, John, Georges and Ringo, four boys in the wind.
Paul Alessandrini. At the time you were asked to follow the Beatles, were you a pop music fan yet?
Harry Benson. I had heard their music, but at the time I was a fan of Frank Sinatra and Ella Fitzgerald. But when I heard the Beatles play for the first time in Paris, I knew I was on the right story. A reporter from Manchester, England, Derek Taylor, knew them well and being with him made it a lot easier to be close to the Beatles. And closeness is what I am looking for--always.
P.A. Have you been surprised by the real frenzy happening every time around the Beatles?
H.B. Well, it was all happening so fast. We were all young and the Beatles didn't expect their popularity to last more than 18 months. They talked about what they would do after the frenzy died down. No one knew then that they would be the most important composers and musicians of the 20th century.
P.A. Have some pics (like the pillow fight) been organized, or was it just that you have been there at the right moment?
H.B. The pillow fight was a spontaneous photograph. It was about 2:00 A.M. after a concert at the Olympia in Paris in January 1964. The Beatles had so much spent up energy after a performance, and they really couldn't go out because they would be mobbed. We were sitting around talking and drinking. Their manager, Brian Epstein, burst into their suite at the George V Hotel to tell them "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was number one on the American charts which meant they were going to America to be on the Ed Sullivan Show. It meant I was going to America with them, and I was pleased. America had always fascinated me. Ever since I was a boy in Glasgow watching James Cagney gangster movies, I knew that was where I wanted to be. The Beatles were excited about having a number one hit in America. I had heard the Beatles talking about a pillow fight they had a few nights before, so I suggested it. I thought it would make a good photo. At first they said okay, but then John said, no, it would make them look silly, so that was that. A moment later John sneaked up behind Paul and hit him over the head with a pillow, spilling Paul's drink, Ringo and George joined in and they were off.
P.A. Did the Beatles liked to be photographed? How did they react to your presence? What were the reactions of each of them regarding being followed and photographed all the time?
H.B. The Beatles would pose for any legitimate photographer from any newspaper as we traveled. They also held press conferences with local college newspapers in many towns we visited. Brian Epstein, their manager, knew the importance of publicity and never interfered. But by the time the first US tour was over, the Beatles were becoming a bit weary of the strain of performing live on stage every night.
P.A. Did it happen that they were afraid of your camera? Or shy? Or upset?
H.B. No, not at all. Nothing like that. You can tell by looking at the photographs that they were completely at ease being photographed by me.
P.A. Had you any idea at that time of the importance of what you were doing?
H.B. I don't think anyone knew right at the beginning that the Beatles would change the culture of the world, but it became apparent as the ground swell became a surge, and everyone from all walks or life and all ages just embraced their music and emulated their hair style, their clothes, their attitude toward life. It had mostly to do with their fabulous music, but perhaps it may have had partly to do with the fact that the world had been in such turmoil with the protests against the Vietnam war, and The Beatles were an escape from all that.
P.A. Do you think the image (and in particular on your pictures) played an important part on the career of the Beatles and their celebrity?
H.B. I don't have an answer for that, although without publicity it is hard for a group to become well known. Come on, it was all about the music which is still phenomenal. We are talking debatably about the greatest composers of the last century.
P.A. Did it help you in your career as a photographer? In what sense?
H.B. I think my photographs of the Beatles had an important part in my career because they got me to America and I stayed.
P.A. When did you stop following their career? And how?
H.B. I was with the Beatles in Paris, Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and on their first and third U.S. tours in New York, Washington, DC, Miami, Chicago, Boston, and several other cities and on the movie "A Hard Day's Night." But I was a photojournalist and also covered the Civil Rights marches with Martin Luther King Jr., the race riots all over America, eleven US presidents from Eisenhower to Obama, and various movie stars and several wars. I was standing next to Senator Robert Kennedy when he was shot and documented that horrific night for history.
So I wasn't a rock and roll photographer and I covered the Beatles as a news story which it was. The Beatles were news. They were a phenomenon.
P.A. Do you still have relationship with Paul and Ringo?
H.B. I photographed Paul on tour with WINGS with his wife Linda and with his children when they were younger. Since then, I have run into Paul several times over the years and we always stop and talk for a few minutes. It is very friendly because of old times, but that is it. I have never run into Ringo since the 60's. I have never gone out of my way to see any celebrity except to photograph them.
P.A. Do you think there is a specificity of "rock photography"? Who would you quote as a rock photographer you like? And what other rock photographers you met?
H.B. No, I don't think there is a specifically rock photography mode. I think photography is photography, whatever you are photographying. To me, it is a loner's business so I really don't know any rock photographers. A lot of rock photographers are just guys or girls who want to hang around with rock stars. I don't want to hang around with anyone, I want to photograph them.
P.A. Now, are you still asked to photograph rock stars? And who?
H.B. I photographed Amy Winehouse in London a few years ago for The New Yorker and found her to be congenial and well mannered. My photograph of her is now hanging in a museum in Beijing. I photographed the legendary Iggy Pop in Florida several months ago for Vice magazine, and he was a great sport. Both Amy and Iggy were very professional and I was pleased to have photographed them.
In closing, let me say that photographing the Beatles was a fun time in my life and the Beatles remain important because it is all about the music.
Interview by Paul Alessandrini
Harry Benson. The Beatles
Collector’s edition limited to 1764 signed and numbered copies.
Also available in two luxury editions of 100 copies each, with a silver print
Hardcover in clamshell box, 31.2 x 44 cm (12.3 x 17.3 in.), 272 pages EUR 500.00 ISBN 978-3-8365-3315-7 (02/2012 Allemand, Anglais, Français)