How a Pillow Fight with the Beatles Launched Photojournalist Harry Benson’s Career

Artsy Editorial
Oct 2, 2014 4:17PM

Famed photographer Harry Benson has captured some of the most influential figures of the last 50 years, and he’s done so through a careful, observant lens, offering the kind of intimacy one would only expect to achieve through portraying friends and family members. His portfolio is an archive of iconic, historical moments: Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination; Dr. Martin Luther King’s march in Mississippi; Bill Clinton, then-governor, embarking on a historic campaign for President; and the photograph that made his name, picturing the Beatles having a pillow fight in a Paris hotel room in 1964. Benson has stood beside every U.S. president since Eisenhower and has even managed to make the Queen of England smile.

The Scottish-born photographer has consistently downplayed his technical expertise. “Cameras are actually quite easy to learn,” he has explained. “You’ve only got eight stops, you’ve just got to learn to be as quick as you can.” Benson is tasked with the challenge of capturing the kinds of moments celebrities are unaccustomed to revealing, so he has become accustomed to carefully choreographing his surroundings, and, to always be prepared. “There are always moments in every story I’ve done—no matter how difficult when all of a sudden it will soften for you,” Benson once said. “There’s an opportunity, there’s a door open, and you’ve got to be like a dog. You get through it quickly.”

We are fascinated by celebrity. The parts of their lives we are privy to are so manufactured that we interpret any glimpse of intimacy as our way of getting to know them better. When Benson was in the hotel room with The Beatles, he heard them discussing a pillow fight they had had a few nights earlier. He suggested that they do it again. John Lennon demurred, afraid it would make the band look silly and childish, but he then hit Paul McCartney over the head with a pillow, spilling his drink. “I like the fact Paul is hitting John and John is hitting George.” Benson said about the infamous shot, “There is a flow that makes the picture pretty perfect.” Benson had found his moment.

—Melissa Smith

Discover more artists at Contessa Gallery.

Artsy Editorial