Holyrood show for Harry Benson, the Scot who put US in the frame

In this 1964 photograph, to be included in the show, Muhammad Ali, then called Cassius Clay, pretends to hit George Harrison in Miami. Picture: contributed

In this 1964 photograph, to be included in the show, Muhammad Ali, then called Cassius Clay, pretends to hit George Harrison in Miami. Picture: contributed

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HE was the young Scottish photographer who shot to fame with his iconic image of the Beatles having a pillow fight in a Paris hotel.

Harry Benson would go on to carve out a career capturing some of the defining political and cultural figures of the next 50 years.

Parliament presiding officer Tricia Marwick with Harry Benson. Picture: contributed

Parliament presiding officer Tricia Marwick with Harry Benson. Picture: contributed

Now he is to be honoured with an exhibition at the Scottish Parliament, charting half a century of his work in the United States, where he followed the Beatles on their 1964 tour.

He photographed every president from Dwight Eisenhower to Barack Obama. He captured the assassination of Robert Kennedy, covered the civil rights struggle in the 1960s, and was there when Richard Nixon resigned as president over the Watergate scandal in 1974.

Benson’s work with Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Jack Nicholson, Dolly Parton, Kevin Spacey and Brad Pitt will grace the parliament building during the show, which will launch during the Edinburgh festival season.

Benson launched his photojournalism career at the Hamilton Advertiser in Lanarkshire, after learning his craft taking wedding pictures.

To have my retrospective, my American journey, at the Scottish Parliament is an incredible privilege

HARRY BENSON

Among his earlier jobs were as a cinema messenger delivering Pathé newsreels, transporting X-ray films in a wheelbarrow around Glasgow, and a cook in the RAF.

His first big break came when he was given the task of covering a murder on a golf course – the corpse turned out to be a victim of the mass murderer Peter Manuel – and he went on to become a successful Fleet Street photographer.

He worked for the Daily Express when he moved to the US and went on to have his photography published in LIFE, People, the New Yorker, Newsweek, Paris Match and Vanity Fair.

He has covered conflicts in Iraq, Bosnia and Afghanistan, photographed Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, Muhammad Ali, Greta Garbo and Steve McQueen, and staged more than 40 exhibitions of his work in the US and Europe.

Benson said: “Growing up in Glasgow, one year at the end of term when I had narrowly passed my qualifying exam to the next level, my teacher, Miss MacKenzie, stopped me as I shuffled out of the classroom and said: ‘Benson, I don’t worry about you one bit.’

“It was the nicest thing anyone had ever said to me. I wish I could have gone back years later to thank her.

“I relocated from London’s Fleet Street on assignment to cover the Beatles’ first American tour and then stayed to cover American politics and the civil rights movement. My dream was always to work for LIFE magazine, which I did from 1968 to 2000.

“There is more than one event that stands out – the Robert Kennedy assassination, Nixon’s resignation, the civil rights marches with Dr Martin Luther King.

“To have my retrospective, my American journey, at the Scottish Parliament is an incredible privilege. My wife, Gigi, and my daughters, Wendy and Tessa, join me in thanking the Scottish Parliament for this truly remarkable honour.”

The exhibition will run until December and will coincide with the race for the White House.

It has also been announced ahead of a planned release of a new documentary charting Benson’s career, which features contributions from Donald Trump, Sharon Stone, Henry Kissinger, Alec Baldwin and Ralph Lauren.

The Scottish Parliament exhibition will be Benson’s first major show in his home country since a homecoming retrospective at Kelvingrove art gallery in Glasgow, where he was born in 1929.

He visited Edinburgh last year to unveil a photograph of the Queen, commissioned by the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. He first photographed her when she opened a coal mine in Fife in 1957.

Benson, who was made a CBE in 2009, was previously honoured by the National Galleries of Scotland to celebrate 50 years in photojournalism.

His work will be going on display at Holyrood three years after it staged an exhibition devoted to the work of American artist Andy Warhol.

Tricia Marwick, presiding officer of the parliament, said: “Harry Benson’s work is admired across the world and he is undoubtedly one of Scotland’s greatest exports.

“This new exhibition is Harry’s unique take on America over the last 50 years. It is a ‘must see’ for anyone with an interest in American history, politics and culture.”

• Harry Benson: Seeing America is at the Scottish Parliament from 12 August-3 December.

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