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The Beatles' Breakout Moment: The Story Behind This Famous Throwback Photo

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Harry Benson

At first, photographer Harry Benson said no to taking pictures of The Beatles.

It was 1964 and the Scottish-born photojournalist wanted to travel to Uganda for a story about its newfound independence, not take pictures of some British rock-and-roll band on its way up, which his editor had asked him to cover.

“I knew who The Beatles were, but they hadn’t had their big breakthrough yet,” Benson, now 87, tells PEOPLE.

His trip to Africa was not to be. At 11 p.m., the night before Benson was set to fly there, his editor at The Daily Express in London called him and told him that indeed, the big boss was sending him to Paris the next morning to photograph the band.

Any reservations Benson had faded the minute he heard The Beatles sing All My Loving in Paris, where they were performing just before they headed to the United States for the first time.

 

 

“I thought, ‘S—. I’m on the right story! This is the right story!’ The following day they were number one, two and three in America. They became a phenomenon.”

So did Benson. With his laid-back, self-deprecating manner and knack for consistently capturing the perfect moment on film, Benson went on to become one of the world’s most renowned and prolific photographers.

Working for publications including Life, Vanity Fair and PEOPLE, Benson earned unprecedented access to every president since Eisenhower (he’s taken more pictures of President-elect Donald Trump than anyone else) and to icons including Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Muhammad Ali.

“I was ambitious,” he says. “I was like a rabid dog.”

Now, a new documentary, Harry Benson: Shoot First, gives an in-depth look into a storied career that has spanned more than 60 years, starting with Benson’s humble beginnings in Scotland, where he started shooting with a Coronet Cub box camera his father gave him.

Out Dec. 9, the film chronicles Benson’s perch from the front lines of history, photographing Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King Jr., Greta Garbo and Robert F. Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1968.

“I was right next to him when he got shot,” says Benson.

For more on Harry Benson and his legendary photographs, pick up a copy of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.

He also got up close and personal with The Beatles in Paris in 1964, capturing some of the most intimate photos ever taken of the band with his famous “Pillow Fight” picture.

While Benson and the Fab Four were staying at the swanky George V Hotel in Paris, he suggested that they have a pillow fight like the one they had had a few nights before.

“John Lennon said, ‘No, we’ll all look childish and silly.’ They all turned and said, ‘Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, yeah…’

“Paul’s sitting there, drinking a brandy. I stretch out on the settee. John slips away and comes up behind him and hits him with a pillow and that was it. Went on for about half an hour.”

He says he knew at that moment that these images would become iconic and that he would soon be leaving Fleet Street in London.

“What that picture meant was that I was coming to America,” he says. “That I was not going back.”