FORTY-two years ago, a young unknown photographer left his hometown of Glasgow and boarded a plane to America. It was a trip that was to change his life forever and mark the beginning of an illustrious career spanning five decades. This summer at Kelvingrove Museum, Harry Benson, the now legendary photographer, celebrates an extraordinary lifetime in pictures.
He did not always want to be a photographer. "My lifelong ambition was to play goalie for Scotland in football. I just gave up that idea a few weeks ago. I left school at 13 and it impacted on me greatly, it made me angry and determined to succeed. I was hopeless at school, it all bored me".
It was the drama and dropping bombs of World War II that provided the young Benson with the desire and drive to 'be at the centre of things'.
With a box camera, a Coronet Cub, he began photographing his pals playing football. From there, he moved on to photographing weddings and to this day retains respect for wedding photographers.
Next came a steady job at the Hamilton Advertiser, and his first break followed in 1959 with the photograph and exclusive interview with Scottish serial killer Peter Manuel in Barlinnie prison. "It was a coup," he says.
In 1964, a young band from Liverpool called The Beatles rocketed to No 1 in the States with their single I Want to Hold Your Hand. Little did the young Benson know that this was to change his life. The band made its first trip to New York, and Benson accompanied them, telling the London Evening Standard that he wouldn't be back.
He persuaded the Beatles to have a pillow fight in their hotel room and captured some of the most iconic images in the band's history.
Benson had long harboured a fascination with America. "I was taken to the movies as a child to see American gangster films; it made me want to see what America was like. Also, I always wanted to work for Life magazine which at the time was the ultimate for a photojournalist. I worked for Life from 1968 until it closed a couple of years ago."
Benson is a great believer in the distance between photographer and subject, so it is ironic that this approach has resulted in images almost startling in their intimacy: Bill and Hillary Clinton in a hammock in a tantalising almost-kiss, shortly before his presidential inauguration in 1992. There's Nancy and Ronald Reagan kissing, looking like teenagers, after a lifetime of marriage. There are the intimate portraits of stars, including Elizabeth Taylor, Greta Garbo and Michael Jackson. He caught the horror on Ethel Kennedy's face in the Ambassador Hotel after her husband had been shot.
Although Benson has lived for most of his adult life in New York, he still feels close to Glasgow, and retains a strong Glaswegian accent.
In the book Harry Benson's Glasgow his photographs span 50 years of his hometown. He captures ordinary Glasgow folk unaware, mixed with portraits of the city's more famous faces. From boxing legends Peter Keenan and Walter McGowan, to ex-MSP Tommy Sheridan, gangster Paul Ferris, and writer William McIIvanney. In the changing rooms are the stars of Scottish football and in the Press Bar sit the editors of the Glasgow papers.
"I remember growing up in Glasgow during the war," he reminisces. "The blackouts, playing football, the tram cars and buses, dancing at the Locarno ballroom '“ all fond memories."
Among the ordinary people pictured in the book is a poignant shot of an elderly couple from the 1970s living in their one room, known in Glasgow as a 'single end', a young girl smoking in the slums, and a young boy crying on his first day at school.
Now comes an achievement he is uniquely proud of '“ his first exhibition in his home city. "I am honoured to be given a show at Kelvingrove. I was taken there as a youngster by Eastwood School. I remember the boys in the class, including me, played hide-and-seek in the galleries."
Like many of his generation, Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery became etched on to his visual cortex: "I remember the wonderful model ships in the big cases and being fascinated with the paintings.
"And now I have a show at this wonderful place! I really wish some of my teachers, my relatives and my mother and father were still here to see it. It's good to be recognised in your hometown. I am always proud to say I'm from Glasgow." It seems fitting that after 50 years of producing iconic images of some of the most famous and infamous figures of the 20th century that Benson himself should now be regarded as legendary. The proof is in the pictures.
'¢ Harry Benson '“ A Photographer's Journey is at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, 30 May until 14 September.