Imagine the innumerable clicks of a camera during a fashion shoot. Envision the countless rolls of film a photojournalist exposes during an assignment. Over the course of a photographer’s career, the number of images a photographer produces is immense, but they are constantly in search of that perfect shot, or to capture “the decisive moment” as famed Humanist photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson termed it. Having a prolific career and life come down to one or several, well-known photographs may seem reductive, but is often the case with many of the most famous of photographers. Legendary photojournalist Harry Benson who has captured decades of historical photographs believes, “Every photographer comes down to one photograph.” Given this belief from a renowned photographer with countless classic images, what contributes to that one, iconic photo that comes to define a photographer’s body of work?
Harry Benson, The Beatles (Pillow Fight) – Paris
Harry Benson’s self-described “one photograph” is Beatles’ Pillow Fight from 1964 at the Hotel George V in Paris. In this instance, Benson was not only privileged to be working with The Beatles, but lucky enough to be with the legendary band when they received the news that their song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” went to number one on the charts in the United States. Before he knew it, Benson was artfully photographing a pillow fight. He was snapping away at their celebratory play fighting, catching the signature shot of Paul McCartney swinging a pillow at John Lennon while Ringo Starr jumps on top of George Harrison.
Benson says about his work with The Beatles, “Some assignments I feel I could go back and improve on, but not The Beatles, I don’t think I could have bettered it.” He then says about Beatles’ Pillow Fight in particular, “With most of my pictures I think I could have done better, but this was the perfect moment, it won’t happen again. I got it.” This is a strong belief from a photographer known for producing such a highly regarded and beautifully composed body of work shooting intimate photos of the most recognized personalities of the 20th century.
During this particular time in 1964, The Beatles were still fresh, new, and working well together creating the perfect chance for Benson to capture them at their height. Benson’s timing was impeccably placed to capture Paul McCartney’s swing after Benson’s subtle suggestion led the way for an intimate and playful portrayal of the legendary band. Benson recalls processing the negatives in the bathroom of the George V and putting the negatives in his suitcase, never realizing their historic and cultural importance.
On the other hand, renowned fashion photographers who come to be defined by a select few images may not depend on being at the right place at the right time as much, but more on their own composed settings and circumstances to achieve that special image. Take for example pioneering photographer Horst. P. Horst who has become recognized as one of the old masters of fashion photographers for his work mostly with Vogue starting in the 1930s. The image that has become most closely associated with the “master of dramatic light” is his iconic work, Mainbocher Corset from Paris in 1939.
The timeless composition with its subtle elegance and astounding balance, not to mention the flattering light and dramatic shadows has become regarded by many as Horst’s best work. In great contrast to Benson, Horst utilized a large format camera mounted on a stand with a focusing screen using long exposures allowing him to manipulate his compositions down to the minutest detail. One wonders how long Horst spent adjusting the bands in the corset to achieve his most elegant image with the model holding her pose for prolonged periods given Horst’s long exposures. Mainbocher Corset was carefully composed with every detail planned; yet it is still the product of a special moment. Describing the context that the photograph was shot within, Horst says,
“It was created by emotion…It was the last photo I took in Paris before the war. I left the studio at 4.00 a.m., went back to the house, picked up my bags and caught the 7.00 a.m. train to Le Havre to board the Normandie. The photograph is peculiar for me. While I was taking it, I was thinking of all that I was leaving behind.”
Perhaps the impending departure from an adopted home and feelings of loss and anxiety allowed Horst to compose the image with an altered and perhaps more emotionally charged outlook. Although it is not outwardly obvious, this photograph too may be as much a result of a moment in time as Harry Benson’s “one photograph.”
The 20th Century Experience
Two very different, but equally iconic images embraced and were the products of a particular moment. They both captured singular examples of the 20th century experience. Even though fashion photography may rely much more heavily on careful composition and lighting than the more situational documentary photograph, each borrows from the other creating highly regarded and quintessential photographs the results of situational chance, composition, and of course the photographer’s eye. These emotionally charged photographs still have the same effect on viewers as they did when first created decades ago. The timelessness and continuing popularity of these images is a testament to the enduring talent of the artists and their advantageous use of the context and circumstances that they were a part of.