A distraught Ethel Kennedy has just seen her fatally wounded husband lying on the floor of a hotel kitchen. With a ferocious scream, she pushes back the crowd demanding they grant him some space. One daring camera stays and catches the prelude to Bobby Kennedy’s death.
Six years later, Pat Nixon stands near her husband as he struggles to address his staff one last time. Richard Nixon’s agonizing pause behind the podium is nothing compared to the look of unbearable pain in his wife’s eyes. The camera is there again, documenting every second of her fortitude.
For the past 60 years nothing has eluded legendary photojournalist Harry Benson, not Muhammad Ali or Queen Elizabeth or Willie Nelson or Winston Churchill. The Scottish-born photographer has captured every U.S. president since Dwight Eisenhower and documented history-defining moments, such as the James Meredith Civil Rights March, the rise and fall of the Berlin Wall, and the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr.
From Somalian refuge camps and Vietnam War protests to Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball and Bobby Fischer’s World Chess Championship in Iceland, Benson’s career is an extreme case of being in the right place at the right time.
A selection of about 40 of his photographs, mostly in black and white, is currently on view at Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens through June. They include civil right figures, politicians, musicians, celebrities, and athletes. For those who weren’t born yet, they bring to life events taught through books or Wikipedia. If you were around, they transport you to the time and place portrayed.
The prints depicting Pat Nixon’s tenacity during Nixon’s scandalous resignation in 1974 and Ethel Kennedy’s emotional appeal following Kennedy’s assassination in 1968 are among the heaviest to process. The rest of the selection embraces levity.
Candid portraits of former presidents carve out the formality attached to that office and reveal a rarely seen dimension. There’s George H.W. Bush enjoying a sunny day at the pool with his dog in a print from 1978 taken in Houston. There’s also a tender public display of affection by Bill and +Hillary Clinton in Little Rock, Ark., following his presidential win. As she reaches down to the hammock where he rests to kiss him, Benson freezes the moment just before their lips touch. In other instances, such as a portrait of Donald Trump holding 1 million dollars in cash at his Taj Mahal hotel and casino, we get exactly what we expect to see.
The photos, hanging side by side in the westernmost gallery, function as an assessment of sorts, with each sitter’s personality shining through. Some denote respect for the men’s former position by including “president” in the title while others skip all etiquette and refer to them simply by name.
There’s a magical moment when a photographer knows he/she has gotten THE picture; one perfect shot that encapsulates a moment in time without necessarily showing all there is to it. At 93, Benson has taken many pictures that fit this description and survived many technologies. Harry Benson: Shoot First, a 2016 documentary about his life, attributes his success to an incredible ability to make his subjects feel comfortable. Jackie Kennedy says as much in a letter from 1986 thanking him for attending her daughter’s wedding. It is included in the show next to a Life magazine cover.
“You made her feel completely at ease and it shows in all those radiant happy pictures.”
A photograph of the former first lady wearing a cream ski mask while on holiday in Canada is included in the show. Her expressive eyes make a dramatic appearance through the narrow opening provided by the garment. Benson draws more attention to them by blurring her surroundings. Remarkably, we recognize her right away and are pleased to detect enough evidence of happiness in this image from 1968.
He was there, too, for The Beatles’ celebratory pillow fight in 1964, having learned “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had landed the No. 1 spot on the American charts. The euphoric musicians, pictured hitting each other over the head, look like teenagers in this sequence of nine action shots taken at 3 a.m. in Paris. The photographer’s presence goes unnoticed except in two scenes when Ringo Starr and George Harrison pause and look in his direction.
Benson’s career was just beginning when he traveled to America with the dynamic British rock band that year. Three years later, he began working for Life magazine and his career took off. The rest is history. Not bad for a guy who started with plate cameras.
Harry Benson: Picturing History is highly moving, playful, unguarded, and grounded; much as the man carrying the camera. Among the prints embodying this lightness is a hysterical image of James Brown doing a split in a backyard while amused onlookers break into a laugh. The year is 1979 and this is Augusta, Ga. His wide smile beams with pride, joy, and optimism. Dirtying his light linen outfit is the last worry in his mind.
Harry Benson: Picturing History runs through June at the Ann Norton Sculpture Gardens. Hours: Wednesday to Sunday, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission: Members free, adults, $15; seniors, $10; children/student, $7. 253 Barcelona Road, West Palm Beach. 561-832-5328. Info@ansg.org.