Capturing the Defining Moments in Recent History
Over the course of his globe trotting, extraordinary career, Scottish photographer Harry Benson has captured some of the defining moments in recent history. From photographing every U.S president from Eisenhower to Biden, to the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, it was through photo-journalist and portrait photographer Benson’s intimate pictures that we have visual records of such significant moments in time.
From Brides to Beatles
Born in Glasgow in 1929, Benson started out as a wedding photographer, then moving on to working for Daily Sketch and Daily Express, London’s cut throat tabloid press. While on assignment fort the Daily Express, he traveled to the United States in 1964 with The Beatles, to photograph the band at the beginning of their worldwide fame. Benson produced some his most renowned images of the band during this tour, and he decided to stay and make America his home. His photographs have appeared in some of the most influential magazines and newspapers of the twentieth century, including LIFE, Vanity Fair, Time, Esquire, and The New Yorker.
From Argentina to Iceland
A great example highlighting Benson’s immediate, natural and intimate aesthetic, is his photographs of the chess great, Bobby Fischer, during The Chess World Championship in Reykjavík, Iceland in 1972. Benson first began photographing Bobby Fischer in 1971, for LIFE magazine, when he was sent to Buenos Aires, Argentina, to cover the 1971 Candidates Match, where the two began cultivating a relationship. With his victory in Buenos Aires, Fischer became a pop culture sensation and an icon ahead of his Championship game which would be played against his Russian rival, Boris Spassky.
The Match of the Century
The 1972 championship game became a worldwide event, and was named ‘Match of the Century’ by the media. The game also served as a Cold War political metaphor; the Soviets regarded the game of chess as their national pride and Bobby Fischer of the States posed a great threat. Fischer, on the other hand, was under enormous pressure. Henry Kissinger, the Secretary of State at the time, even called Fischer, encouraging him to play the match when he threatened to back out. Fischer ultimately won the title in an iconic battle, a victory that was viewed as another example of capitalism’s victory over communism.
“The most eccentric and most fascinating person that I have ever photographed”
During the assignment, Harry Benson spent nearly two months, on and off, with the chess champion. His photographs of Fischer were candid, at times touching, non-scripted and intimate; they portrayed a side of him that was otherwise unknown to the public eye. Although Fischer was known for being notoriously camera averse, and socially awkward, Harry Benson would call him “the most eccentric and most fascinating person that I have ever photographed.” As the only person to have private access to Fischer during the World Championships, Benson was able to get beyond Fischer’s antagonistic persona, and lens a charming, reflective one instead.
Private and Personal Moments
Skeptical of journalists, Fischer would request late night meetings with Benson, which generally consisted of quiet walks broken up from time to time by Fischer pulling out a pocket chess set to play under lampposts. During the two months they spent together, Benson captured pictures that serve as windows into some of the more humanist, private and personal moments of the chess genius.
Fischer is depicted in solitude and silence in Benson’s ‘Bobby Fischer On the Bed at Night’, whereas ‘Bobby Fischer Kissed by a Horse’ reveals a touching moment. On connecting with his subject, Benson said;
“It (chess) was boring to him. I connected with him because I knew nothing about chess. I kept my conversation on the (New York) Jets, boxing, anything but chess.”
Benson’s Empathetic Eye
The series emphasizes Benson’s empathetic eye, and his ability to make his subject feel at ease, ultimately producing great pictures that are revealing. Stripped from aesthetic concerns, Benson tried to peer into the very core of his subject, exploring a side of Fischer that was hidden, and beyond his image in the media. He would say:
“The thing then about photography for me was getting to the center. You’re looking for the center of the story. You want to get out of this circle and break into the center. That is a good news picture, but it also is, is in all photography you want to see.”
One of the Most Interesting Subjects
Benson and Fischer continued speaking sporadically over the years, yet the chess champion remained as one of Benson’s most interesting subjects to photographs throughout his career.
A great photographer in every regard, Harry Benson has photographed some of the most defining moments of recent history. He has received the 2005 LUCIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in Photography as well as the 2005 AMERICAN PHOTO Magazine Award for Achievement in Photography. He was awarded the 2006 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Scottish Press Photographers Association and has received the Leica Medal of Excellence twice. In 2009, Benson was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II. In 2017, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the International Center of Photography in New York, where currently resides.