Capturing Pivotal Moments

Scottish born photojournalist Harry Benson has carved a lasting legacy in the world of photography with his exceptional ability to capture pivotal moments in history, celebrity culture, and everyday life. Benson’s lens has witnessed and immortalized some of the most significant moments of the 20th and 21st centuries, from political upheavals and social movements to cultural revolutions and iconic celebrity encounters. His photographs serve as visual records that not only preserve but also bring the past back to life. He has photographed 12 US Presidents, was feet away from Bobby Kennedy the night he was assassinated and was on the Meredith March with Martin Luther King. His work has appeared in numerous publications such as LIFE, Vanity Fair, Time, Esquire and The New Yorker.

At the Center of Things

Born in Glasgow in 1929, Harry Benson became interested in photography at a fairly young age. He recalls,

Growing up in Scotland, that’s when I realized I wanted to be there at the center of what was happening, not on the edge looking in.”

This ability and insistence to be at the center of things lead to Benson getting a start in the world o photojournalism and he soon became one of the most well known among his contemporaries. Working as a staff photographer at the London Daily Express at the time, he received a call from the newspaper in 1964 that would completely change the course of his career. The paper commissioned Benson to cover the Beatles’ trip to Paris. There, a strong bond formed between the band and the photographer, and he then accompanied The Beatles on their US tour. He had generous access to them for the next 18 months and has published 3 books devoted to The Beatles and a recent volume on Paul. And so, Benson arrived in America.


Upon his arrival, Harry Benson began working under contract for LIFE magazine, a long-term collaboration which continued until 2000. His images soon began earning their iconic status as they provided a window into worlds that many would never have access to, offering a glimpse behind the scenes of power, fame, and struggle. His work stands as a testament to the importance of bearing witness, which he humbly summarizes as;

“I was there to photograph and to inform.”

A certain sense of intimacy and urgency is present throughout his photographs, creating the feeling as if ‘one was just there’ or as if a moment had ‘just happened’. Sally Martin Katz, curator of who works with the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art further comments on the significance of Benson’s work saying;

“What sets him apart from so many others is that he was ubiquitous, capturing world events with almost unparalleled access to the people participating in them spanning the vast period in which he has worked…”

The Godfather

One of the series of photographs that best display his incredible ability to be at the right place at the right time are those from the set of The Godfather in New York City. The candid images of Al Pacino, Marlon Brando and Coppola on the set of the iconic film, The Godfather, offer a unique glimpse into the production process and the interactions between the cast and the crew. His lens presents the intensity and drama of perhaps one of the most significant movies in cinematic history.

Harry Benson, Godfather Brando, NYC
Harry Benson, Godfather Brando, NYC, 1971, Archival Pigment Photograph

It was famously known to magazine photographers at the time that it was difficult to get on the set of the movie. The director, Francis Coppola “didn’t mind the publicity,” as Harry Benson recalls, “but Brando would walk off the set, stay in his trailer and production would be halted if he even saw a photographer.” With the meticulousness of a photojournalist on assignment, Benson carefully plotted his strategy for photographing the behind-the-scenes of the iconic scene, where Marlon Brando’s character, Vito Corleone, gets shot.

It wasn’t hard to find out the location for the scene as there were always crew members who would brag and tell you… I showed up at the sidewalk fruit stand while Coppola and Brando were discussing the scene. I started photographing immediately before anyone noticed me. Then I took the roll of film out of the camera and hid it in my sock in case a security guard came up demanding the film… which happens a lot more than you think it does. I was in and out in less than 30 minutes as I had a picture and also a close up of Brando and Coppola talking head-to-head.”

Harry Benson, Godfather, Pacino, NYC, 1971, Archival pigment photograph
Harry Benson, Godfather, Pacino, NYC, 1971, Archival pigment photograph

Luck was again on his side one night in 1971 where Harry Benson was walking home from the offices of Time/Life building where he worked at the time. A chance encounter, he saw Francis Coppola in conversation with Al Pacino and Diane Keaton outside Radio City Music Hall. Benson remembers;

‘The scene when Pacino and Keaton see the newspaper headline about Brando being murdered was being filmed at night…The first night I walked over to take a photograph there was security surrounding the goings on… The production company had a permit to film there, but they couldn’t keep pedestrians from walking past and looking at what was going on. After all they were outside on a public sidewalk. I kept moving around from place to place so that security would not ask me to leave or literally kick me off the set.”

Ambitious Nature Coupled with Never-Ending Curiosity

His ambitious nature coupled with never-ending curiosity helped Benson create photographs of living history. He has always looked for spontaneous photographs, ones that cannot be repeated, and these scenes from the set of The Godfather are as close as one can get to the very heart of making history.

Framing the Way We See and Remember the World

Considered the ‘Zelig of modern photography’, Harry Benson’s career has framed the way we see and remember the world. The quick wit and vibrancy of his own character is always present in the dynamism and immediacy of his photographs. Perhaps one of the most famous pop culture photographers of the modern times, it is through his images that we have come to see and witness some of the most pivotal events of the 20th and 21st centuries. Throughout his illustrious career, he has enjoyed 40 solo exhibitions, and has published 17 books. Benson has received a number of awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Scottish Press Photography Awards, an Honorary Fellowship of The Royal Photographic Society, and an appointment as Commander of the Order of the British Empire. Selected museum collections include the Royal Museum of Scotland, Edinburg, National Portrait Gallery, Edinburgh, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian, DC, British Museum of Photography, Bradford, Tucson Museum of Art and the International Photography Hall of Fame, St. Louis.