When we decided to do a late-breaking cover story on the new Vanessa Williams (page 36), Associate Picture Editor M.C. Marden called on Harry Benson to photograph the former Miss America and her family. “Harry is wonderfully fast and versatile,” says Marden. “He can photograph anyone—from Norman Parkinson to Dolly Parton to Fred Astaire to The Who.”
Benson, 54, a Scot who learned his craft in the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of London’s Fleet Street, does seem to have photographed almost everyone. In 1964 Benson at his persuasive best talked Beatle Paul McCartney into allowing him to accompany the group on the plane to its first U.S. tour. Since he signed on with Time Inc. as a contract photographer in 1968, Benson’s images have included Richard Nixon resigning while a teary-eyed Pat Nixon looked on, Greta Garbo in a swim cap and Truman Capote (page 131) frolicking at the beach.
On the job, says Harry, “a lot of photojournalists like to get close to the people they’re shooting. Not me. I’m looking for distance. I’m no friend. I don’t care what people think of me. If they step out of line, I’m going to zap them. That’s my job.” But those who have watched Benson at work have also seen the sensitivity he brings to his subjects. “I expected Vanessa Williams to be a tough lady,” he says of this week’s assignment. “But she wasn’t. In fact, she was almost naive. I can understand how she got talked into doing what she did. She’s eager to please.”
Harry and wife Gigi, who is also his business partner, live in New York City with their two daughters, Wendy, 13, and Tessa, 5. In 1982 Benson was honored as Photographer of the Year by both the National Press Photographers Association and the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Harry’s book, Harry Benson on Photojournalism (Harmony, $22.50 hardcover, $12.95 paperback), featuring 223 of his best works, was also published that year as well. But the ubiquitous Benson still harbors dreams of the ideal assignment. “I’d like to shoot in Buckingham Palace without any restrictions,” he says. “And I’d like to do Frank Sinatra. I think he’s an important American.” Our guess is that sooner or later he will do both.