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Last Updated: Friday, 24 August 2007, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Benson captures politics 'crisis'
By Karin Goodwin
BBC Scotland news website

Harry Benson, the veteran Scottish photographer, has worked with Hollywood's most iconic stars, US presidents, and civil rights leaders.

George Reid Pic: Harry Benson
Arthur's Seat roots this picture in Edinburgh, says Harry Benson

He captured the Beatles on their first trip to the States, witnessed the assassination of Robert F Kennedy - and has the pictures to prove it.

He has photographed Michael Jackson's son and Elizabeth Taylor in hospital.

Yet he still regards a commission to photograph the Scottish Parliament's presiding officers as an opportunity.

His portraits of Sir David Steel and the Rt Hon George Reid, which will form part of the Scottish Parliament art collection, were unveiled earlier with Mr Benson flying from New York for the reception.

"Any reason to come to back to Scotland is a good one," says the photographer who has lived in New York since the sixties. "I love coming home."

Harry Benson. Pic: Danny Lawson/PA Wire
Photographers hate to admit it, but they are always best known for one picture
Harry Benson

Not everyone was so happy about the decision to employ Mr Benson, who was paid 4,000 for each image.

Some MSPs branded it "excessive" and wondered why the in-house photographer could not have taken the portraits.

Mr Benson shrugs off the controversy. "I'm just doing my job," he says. "I didn't give that a thought."

He had visited the building, designed by Enric Miralles, before and been impressed, and yet these were tricky pictures to get right, he admits.

"It's not like the Houses of Parliament where there are obviously recognisable images," he explains. "My job as a photographer is basically to inform so I had to ground the pictures in Edinburgh."

Informing the public

Over the course of his career, the 77-year-old photographer has been "informing" the public on many major moments in history.

Yet he will probably always be best known for his photograph of the Beatles having a pillow fight just after the band found out they were at number one in the American chart in 1964.

"Photographers hate to admit it, but they are always best known for one picture," he says grimly.

But it is his work on the civil rights movement of which he is proudest.

He documented the riots, the passionate speeches of Martin Luther King, and a few years later the dignified grief of King's wife and children as they arrived in Atlanta for his funeral, after his assassination.

David Steele Pic: Harry Benson
Harry Benson's portrait of Sir David Steel

"I feel very privileged that I covered the civil rights movement. There aren't many of us alive today who did," he says.

"It was something to see that movement taking off, being in the middle of the riots. But that's where I always wanted to be. You're always looking for the centre of the story.

"I never thought of it as a nine to five job. How can you say you're not working this weekend when Martin Luther King is going to speak in Jackson, Mississippi and you know there's going to be trouble? What are you going to do instead - go for a picnic?"

Taking photographs, says Benson, is like getting into a fight.

"You only get into one if you're looking for it," he laughs. "Whenever I have a camera, I'm working. I can't get that feeling of crisis - that essential energy - in my photographs unless I'm on to it and looking for something. It's like combat.

"The pictures I take when I'm happy and relaxed - at Christmas or holidays - are terrible. They have no energy. Photography's a tense business."

But it's also one that he admits has got a lot easier. "Digital photography has revolutionised my career," he says.

I can't get that feeling of crisis - that essential energy - in my photographs unless I'm on to it and looking for something. It's like combat
Harry Benson

It's a theme that he will also develop at the Scottish Festival of Politics debate on the changing face of photojournalism on Saturday.

Next month also sees the launch of his first book on Scotland - Benson's Glasgow, published by Black and White.

It is a mixture of photographs taken in his home town in the sixties, including pictures of the Gorbals and 21st century images of Rangers and Celtic, Glasgow School of Art, and a bare-chested Tommy Sheridan.

Other books in the pipeline include one on the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen and another about Robert Kennedy.

He is certainly not ready to hang up his boots.

"I just tried to cover as many areas as I could," he says. "But I've got plenty left to do. And I'd like to think I've still got some good photographs in me."

Photographer visit inspires youth
18 Jun 07 |  Scotland
Payout for portraits under fire
21 Dec 06 |  Glasgow and West

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