Photographer Harry Benson: 'Anyone is Getable' Benson, 78, has spent the past five decades capturing famous faces from the Beatles to the Clintons. As he takes a stroll through a retrospective of his work, he shares the secret to making his subjects look natural.

Photographer Harry Benson: 'Anyone is Getable'

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Back now with Day to Day. Finally, it's glamour, it's glitz, it's flashing lights, it's, it's you, Alex?


Well, the lights are for the occasional series Photo Op, about images and the people who take them. And, as always, there are pictures for this story, and you can see what we're talking about at

It's the lobby of the high-style Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, where these iconic faces make their own statement, Jack Nicholson, Princess Diana, an aging Greta Garbo, her still piercing eyes, as seen through the eyes of photojournalist Harry Benson.

Mr. HARRY BENSON (Photojournalist): Here they are. That's Martin Luther King, Churchill - that was the last time Churchill went back to his old school.

CHADWICK: You can hear that Harry is a Brit, born in Scotland. Yes, he shot Winston Churchill more than 40 years ago and pop sensation Amy Winehouse for The New Yorker just last month. At 76, he is still a go-to photographer because he gets it.

(Soundbite of song "I Want to Hold Your Hand")

CHADWICK: It's 1964, Harry's in a Paris hotel room in the middle of the night, staying up late with four young guys in a band, and the phone rings. Big news. And they get into this crazy, wild pillow fight.

The Beatles, as themselves, as they are.

Mr. BENSON: And that's the best picture of them. This is the Beatles as we know them, as they came to America, and that is important.

CHADWICK: How did you get to be in their room?

Mr. BENSON: They liked me. They liked me. They'd gotten to like me.

CHADWICK: And they'd just gotten word - they just had a phone call.

Mr. BENSON: They'd just gotten word that "I Want to Hold Your Hand" is number one in America. They were going to America, and I was going with them. And that changed my life, you know.

CHADWICK: He never really left America, except that a photojournalist travels a lot, only from his New York base now. And note that Harry said, that was the best Beatles picture ever. He's got an ego.

But he calls himself a working photojournalist, and says he prefers a natural setting to a studio, which is where his glamour assignments might otherwise go. Harry has a genius for getting people, who get photographed all the time, to relax, to look normal. Here, here's an image of the Clintons and what an image.

It's 1992. The election is over. He's been elected president, not sworn in yet.

Mr. BENSON: Not sworn in yet.

CHADWICK: He's gotten into this hammock. You told him to get into the hammock. And you told her, lean over and give him a kiss.

Mr. BENSON: Yes, come on. I need you in this picture...

CHADWICK: But you didn't shoot the kiss? No, this moment is right before the kiss.

Mr. BENSON: No. I think the picture works because the lips don't quite meet. And I hope she becomes president because that would be a great presidential picture.

CHADWICK: You mean that would be a great picture to sell...

Mr. BENSON: That's a great picture to sell.

CHADWICK: You'd make a fortune off of it.

Mr. BENSON: I didn't want to mention this part, but that was in the back of my mind.

CHADWICK: How do you get them to be that at ease with you?

Mr. BENSON: Photographers have a habit of turning up with too many cameras and with assistants. My best pictures have all been like that, when I've just had a camera and a couple rolls of film. And there are always moments, in every story I've done, no matter how difficult, where, all of a sudden, it will soften for you. Meaning, there's an opportunity. There's a door open. And you've just got to be like a dog. You get through it quickly. You run. You do it.

CHADWICK: OK, there's one secret. Be aggressive in the moment. And here's another. Be cunning, too, as with Greta Garbo.

Mr. BENSON: She just came floating by.

CHADWICK: How far away is she?

Mr. BENSON: Not that far. She was in what I consider good striking distance with a 300 millimeter lens. Each...

CHADWICK: This was years ago, when Harry was on a Caribbean island for something else, and learned that Greta Garbo would be renting a beach house there. So he borrowed a friend's boat, and he waited offshore. And the woman who so wants to be left alone is in the water, only her head is showing, and, for a moment, she looks directly into Harry's lens.

Are you a paparazzi?

Mr. BENSON: No, I think, I've nothing against paparazzi. I think the best pictures in Hollywood are taken by paparazzi. Meaning that a movie star wants to be photographed for fancy magazines. OK, we're not going to get you in a magazine, but we'll get you at the supermarket. And actually, they look better in the supermarket. I mean, if I was an agent, I would be telling my clients, go to the supermarket and be natural because when you see them at the Academy Awards, they look awful. No, I think news, pictures, and paparazzi are very, very close.

CHADWICK: Are you still anxious when you go out on assignment?

Mr. BENSON: I think you're always anxious, and the older I've got, the more insecure I got. Nothing worse for me than flying back into Kennedy airport, and I know the job is mediocre. I haven't just pushed it that little bit extra. Does that make sense?

CHADWICK: Yeah, that does. I don't know how that happens to you, though.

Mr. BENSON: Oh, it happens. I think everything could be better.

CHADWICK: So even with that ego, he can be self-deprecating. But he also is working all the time. Even when he was out for this photo exhibit opening, he was also on assignment, shooting a movie star at his home. Like I said earlier, Harry Benson just gets it.

Mr. BENSON: Anybody is "gettable." No one wants to pass this way unnoticed. I mean, it was just like Richard Nixon, who I liked, understood the historical part of it, why you were there.

CHADWICK: And you were there on the day he resigned?

Mr. BENSON: Yes. And I think people want to be recognized, to know that they were here, in this world. So what's wrong with me, no matter how difficult somebody is, there should be a friendly face in the enemy camp. Why not me? Why not?

CHADWICK: Harry Benson's photography is now on exhibit at the Pacific Design Center in West Hollywood, where Architectural Digest is hosting a retrospective of his work. For Day to Day, this is Alex Chadwick, with another Photo Op."

(Soundbite of song "I Want to Hold Your Hand")

CHADWICK: Harry Benson narrates a slide show of his work at

Day to Day is a production of NPR News with contributions from I'm Alex Chadwick.

BRAND: And I'm Madeleine Brand.

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