My home near Palm Beach, Florida, is a long way from growing up in Glasgow, Scotland. I left school at 13, worked as a messenger for a while, and did my military service as a cook in the Royal Air Force. Thankfully, I started taking photographs, and in 1954 I shot Queen Elizabeth II for the first time, as a news photographer for the Hamilton Advertiser in Glasgow. Three years ago, I found myself in Buckingham Palace, taking the Queen’s official portrait for the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. I photographed her in the room she uses for reading royal correspondence, and she looks relaxed. When you take portraits in a studio, you deflavorize your subjects and they lose their power.
For years, I covered Scotland for the Daily Sketch; in 1958, I moved to London and started working for the Daily Express. My career took off with The Beatles in 1964, and one of my most famous photographs—The Beatles having a pillow fight in their Paris hotel room—is over my couch now: They had just learned they were going on their first American concert tour, and I told them to celebrate with a pillow fight.
I’ve always considered myself a serious photojournalist, and I told my boss at the Daily Express I wanted to shoot the African independence movement in Kenya that year. But my boss insisted I cover The Beatles, and he was right: Music had become news. After Paris, I followed The Beatles over to America, to New York and their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in Miami Beach. One night in Miami, I was watching Muhammad Ali on television, when he was training for his big fight with Sonny Liston at the old 5th Street Gym. He was fantastic, but when I went to The Beatles and asked if they would pose with Ali, they hated the idea—they thought he was a big show-off. I brought them down to the gym anyway and shot them with Ali, who absolutely dwarfed them. John was so mad he wouldn’t even speak to me.
In 1965, I moved to New York, and gradually started working for magazines, from French Vogue to Time, Newsweek, Town & Country and Vanity Fair. Life magazine had me under contract from 1970 to 2000. Over a 65-year career, I’ve photographed every United States president since Dwight Eisenhower. Richard Nixon was gracious; after he stepped down, I turned up at his home in San Clemente for a portrait session. He knew his resignation was part of America’s historical record.
Over the years I’ve shot war zones in Afghanistan and refugee camps in Somalia, and covered Civil Rights marches with Martin Luther King, Jr., and James Meredith. King and Meredith were remarkable, and the Mississippi march was probably the bloodiest moment in the Civil Rights struggle: I still remember developing my film every night in motel bathrooms.
I’ve been shooting magazine assignments in Palm Beach since the Duke and Duchess of Windsor era, back in 1967. Over the years, I kept taking photos—Gloria Swanson, Bob Hope, C.Z. and Cornelia Guest, lots of billionaires—and those shots eventually became Palm Beach People, a book I did with the writer Hilary Geary Ross, with a portion of the proceeds going to the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach. In years to come, books like that will be a record of how the world’s ruling class once lived—or at least that’s the social bull I tell myself. Hilary and I also did New York New York, with more decades of photos: Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow in cat masks at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball; Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis riding in a Checker cab; Bobby Short sitting on a curb in Harlem.
My wife, Gigi, and I have a good life in Palm Beach. I can sit in my living room and see my entire career on the walls, like that portrait of Andy Warhol and Bianca Jagger at The Factory in 1977. We see old friends, too, and had dinner with Ethel Kennedy a few weeks ago. I first photographed Bobby Kennedy for Life, walking down Fifth Avenue during the 1968 St. Patrick’s Day Parade, the same day he announced he was running for president. He’s like a movie star, so young and handsome. Three months later, he’d be dead, shot by Sirhan Sirhan and laid out on the kitchen floor of the Ambassador Hotel. I was there that horrible evening, and I told myself, Harry, for one night, you can’t fail: This is history. And that’s when I got the photo of Ethel, standing over Bobby and holding her hand up at my camera to stop me shooting. That scene in the Ambassador kitchen was a nightmare, but it would have been a nightmare for me if I’d missed the shot.
The photos of Bobby became another book, R.F.K: A Photographer’s Journal. I’ve done 17 books, and this fall, I have a new one coming out, called Moments, from powerHouse.
Gigi—my collaborator for nearly 50 years—and I are looking through photographs now, and it’s an incredible list. Here’s Amy Winehouse—look how great she looked when she wasn’t drinking—and Michael Jackson: I photographed Jackson at Neverland in his bedroom, which was really creepy.
And here’s Edie Beale at Grey Gardens, three years before the movie came out. I read a tiny item in the newspaper, a notice from the sanitation department about their house, and rang the doorbell one day. There were piles of trash on the floor, and raccoons running around, and Big Edie just said, “Oh, Edie, you forgot to dust.” Little Edie really hated Jackie Kennedy, but she loved Lee Radziwill for some reason.
I’m 87 now, and have seen my whole life through a camera, which has been brilliant: Writers lie, reporters lie, but photos don’t lie. And I’m still getting around. A few months ago, The Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach screened the documentary Magnolia Pictures made about me, Harry Benson: Shoot First, and this summer, Glasgow Caledonian University is giving me an Honorary Doctor of Letters degree. For someone who left school at 13, that really means something.