Captures the essence of palm beach people with social writer Hilary Geary Ross
BY ROBIN JAY
If it’s true that 90 percent of information sent to the brain is visual and that we process visuals 60,000 times faster than text, then legendary Scottish photojournalist Harry Benson’s portfolio is the ultimate history book, and he the most effective history professor. You won’t find him physically in a classroom, but you’ve no doubt learned a thing or two about people and humanity from Benson’s historic snapshots taken over the decades – in iconic magazines like Life, Vanity Fair, Vogue and People. Or perhaps in one of his many coffee-table photo books about people – like the one most recently published along with prominent social scene writer Hilary Geary Ross: Palm Beach People.
I first met Harry and his wife Gigi a few years ago at the Palm Beach home of my friend Edwina Sandys, artist extraordinaire and granddaughter of Winston Churchill. (No wonder why there were so many guests from historic families in attendance.) His quaint, soft-spoken Glasgow accent charmed everyone in the room. Later, at a gallery event that featured a selection of Harry’s renowned photographs – I learned just how spectacular his career is. Recently, I sat down with Harry to chat about it.
“In 1964, the London Daily Express asked me to cover a new up-and-coming English band…The Beatles,” he said. “First, I went with the group to Paris, where they were told they were #1 in America, thanks to their song I Want to Hold Your Hand. And so, they decided we would go to New York City (my first time in the United States) where The Beatles would appear on the Ed Sullivan Show, and then in Miami.
“Most people don’t know this, but The Beatles thought they would be popular for no more than 15 months,” Harry said. “Paul and John thought maybe they’d go on to do something on Broadway or play classic guitar. Ringo wanted to be a hair stylist. All I know is that I was coming along with them. It was a big news story because the music was fantastic and people were changing – Beatlemania was taking off. People of all walks wanted to be part of them. The men who were The Beatles never got carried away with themselves. I was 34 at the time – a newsbeat photojournalist – and had done hundreds of historic stories. I went with them and basically never came back [to Scotland].”
Today, Harry and Gigi spend summers in New York and winters in Palm Beach. In those cities, Harry Benson is practically a household name. And once you see his work, you’ll realize you probably have known him for years, too, through his unforgettable photography of people and memorable events. Benson’s photojournalism has chronicled historic events, like the Civil Rights Movement, the assassination of Bobby Kennedy, war stories, activities of every American president since Dwight Eisenhower, the portrait for Queen Elizabeth II, and about every celebrity worth photographing, including Michael Jackson in his home, Elizabeth Taylor, Kate Moss, and countless others. His work has been exhibited in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery, The Smithsonian Institution, and on more than 100 covers of People magazine.
What sparked Benson’s initial interest in capturing the essence of people through photography? “Listening to interesting people, like Winston Churchill’s speeches during the War, made me realize early on that life is about people and what they do and see – it’s historic. I think the drama in life comes from people,” he told me.
Getting Harry to talk about himself isn’t easy. “I’m basically shy,” he said. “It’s not about me…it’s about the people I photograph. I don’t like when people see a photo and say, ‘Oh, that’s a Harry Benson… ’ Big deal! If it were so obvious, then I’d be taking the same photo every time. The world changes, everything changes. I’m rarely at a photo shoot for more than five or 10 minutes and, afterwards, I might not remember their names. I’m there for serious business – to take their picture – not to be invited to dinner. I find speed isn’t everything – it’s the ONLY thing. You start to lose people after awhile. I want my photos to be spontaneous and fun. Even if they are sitting down, I don’t want to turn them into statues. You know?”
And that’s why he partnered with well-known socialite columnist Hilary Geary Ross to produce Palm Beach People. “We worked together on a previous book about New York people, and it made sense to do Palm Beach next since we both have homes here. I wanted it to be a happy book and I wanted to see sunshine and smiles. The people here are happy – and why shouldn’t they be? It’s a happy place. I wanted to record this absolutely most unique place in the world. There’s no other city like it. It’s like a time capsule of a very special era – it hasn’t changed and the people haven’t changed,” said Harry, who first photographed Palm Beach in 1968, some shots of which are in the book. “I absolutely couldn’t have done it without Hilary. She knows everyone: the who’s-who and the what’s-what, and the history of Palm Beach. It was an obvious thing to do. She made what could have been very difficult so much fun.”
“It is Harry’s quiet confidence, good humor, impeccable manners and relaxed demeanor that disarms his subject and thus presents images of the lives and personalities that inhabit this tropical paradise,” said Hilary, who describes Palm Beach as a fairytale setting and a glorious, glamorous backdrop for Harry’s portraits.
Harry says the photo book is like a history book on people. “In France, before there was photography, there was a book written about who the people were who lived there; it was the only way to know what the people were like. Palm Beach People is sort of like that, but with photos. Theoretically, if a tidal wave were to one day swallow up Palm Beach, this book might be the only thing they have to show who the people were. It’s a grim analogy, but true.”
I asked Harry if moving to Palm Beach changed him, compared to his lifestyle in New York. “Moving here did change me,” he laughed. “John Loring [Harry’s close friend and design director emeritus of Tiffany and Co.] told me ‘don’t wear socks.’ After I moved here, the owner of Stubbs & Wooten gave me a pair of the famous slippers everyone in Palm Beach wears. My wife Gigi loves them !”
What’s particularly noteworthy about Palm Beach People is that the portraits are taken at each family’s home. “I let the families pick where they wanted to be photographed on their property,” Harry said. “They know their homes far better than I do. They might say, ‘I like my garden…or I like this corner of the house.’ Fine. I want people to be who they are, not what I think they should be, so I don’t go in barking orders. I just want them to show me they are nice people. After all, how could they not be, living in this happy place, Palm Beach. There are a lot of characters here and most people are happy to be in it…no one wants to pass this way unnoticed – and why should they? It’s a great place to be seen.”
View some of the People of Palm Beach Harry Benson has captured elow:[print_gllr id=10383]