Former Fleet Street photographer Harry Benson, who originally made his name photographing The Beatles back in the Sixties is flying home to Scotland this week to be awarded a Doctorate of Letters by Glasgow University.
He leaves behind a simmering controversy about his work – which has been featured in most of America’s leading magazines such as Life, People and Vanity Fair over the past 40 years – and is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington.
Reviewing the exhibition, the Washington Post raised a few hackles – especially among colleagues of Benson – by suggesting that he achieved his name as a photographer by being a sycophant and conniver. Also that he ‘set-up’most of his prize-winning pictures. He was, the Post suggested, an expert at ‘image enhancement’ A glaring product of British tabloid journalism.
It cited, for example, his famous picture of The Beatles engaged in a pillow-fight in their Brussels hotel. The Beatles being ‘knocked out’by Cassius Clay in a Miami gym in the days before the champ changed his name to Muhammad Ali. A picture of President Clinton romantically lounging in a garden hammock with his wife Hillary. And President Reagan and his wife Nancy kicking up her heels while dancing in The White House. All hokum, suggested the Washington Post’s critic. The work of a ‘charming rogue”, someone who will be ‘lucky to be remembered.”
Responding to the criticism, Benson said he found the review very mean-spirited. As for his credentials over the years as a photo-journalist, how about being tear-gassed with Martin Luther King, covering the Watts riots, the nightmare of Senator Robert Kennedy’s assassination in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles? These were not staged.
He also pointed out that denigrating his 50 year career – without even asking to talk to him was also unfair
Benson’s colleagues, including some who over the years suffered rebukes from their editors for being ‘scooped’by Benson, rallied to his side – and in letters to the Washington Post defended their colleague. Many attributed Benson’s success not so much to his dexterity with a camera, but the fact that over the years he retained his broad Scottish accent which he used very adroitly to win over his subjects ‘Let’s have a wee smile’was one of his favorite expressions.
As for staging pictures, several, including one former Fleet Street editor, pointed out that some of the most famous news pictures in history have .been staged. Notably the picture of American Marines raising the American flag on a mountain top over Iwo Jima. That was staged not once, but twice.! And the picture of a sailor enthusiastically kissing a girl in Times Square on VJ Day. Wasn’t that staged too?
Before flying off to Scotland Benson – for once sounding modest – said he hoped the controversy would not spill over to the awards ceremony in Glasgow. And that from someone who was known in his early days in Scotland as Flash Harry.