Harry Benson has seen it all. Robert F. Kennedy fell, fatally wounded, at his feet. John Lennon nearly hit him when he swung a pillow at Paul McCartney. He has ventured inside the filthy Grey Gardens estate to meet with Jacqueline Onassis’ cousins Edie and Edith Bouvier Beale, and inside a modern Beverly Hills mansion to meet Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore. And he’s captured it all in photographs, just published in a monograph, Harry Benson: Photographs.
The book, which spans Benson’s 60-year career, reads like a cultural and political atlas of American history. He has photographed every president since Eisenhower, countless movie stars, singers, soldiers, civil-rights heroes, and athletes. A masked Frank Sinatra walking up the stairs of Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball in 1966; a sanguine mother breastfeeding her baby under the folds of her Ku Klux Klan robe in South Carolina in 1965. Martin Luther King giving a stirring speech after the tear gassings in Canton, Mississippi; Oprah Winfrey stopping for a coffee on the streets of Chicago in 1996. Richard Nixon, flanked by his family, giving an emotional resignation speech in 1974; Hillary Clinton bending over a hammock in Little Rock to give her husband a kiss in 1992. Michael Jackson cavorting with children on the grounds of Neverland; George W. Bush practicing his golf swing in the Texas Governor’s Mansion.
In each of these photographs, Benson has captured public figures like we’ve never seen them before: unposed. “I try to photograph people the way they think they are—not the way I think they are,” Benson told The Daily Beast. “I want a moment in their life, not a moment in mine. If you let people be themselves, it’s going to happen.” He repeats one of his favorite phrases: “There for a moment and gone forever.”
One such moment occurred on June 5, 1968, when Benson was photographing the celebration of Robert F. Kennedy’s victory in the California Democratic Presidential Primary at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. After his victory speech, Kennedy left the podium and made his way through the crowded room to cross through the hotel’s kitchen. Benson trailed the senator with his camera. Within seconds, screams filled the room. RFK had been shot in the head with a .22 caliber gun, and lay dying at Benson’s feet. “A Kennedy is literally shot in front of me,” Benson said. “I’m saying to myself, ‘Don’t fuck up today. Fuck up tomorrow.’ This is it. This is what I came into the business for.” Benson, the only photographer on the scene, didn’t hesitate, and snapped now-iconic images of Kennedy on the floor—and a fear-stricken Ethel Kennedy turning to scream: “Give him air!”
Benson shot five rolls of film—including images of a boater hat lying in a pool of blood, and a dazed campaign worker—and stuffed each in his sock, “in case a policeman with a gun asked me for my film.” He pauses, remembering the night: “I’d rather photograph for life than die for it.”
Click the Image to View Our Gallery of Harry Benson's Photographs
But being in the middle of danger is nothing new for Benson. “It’s a strange thing, being in a crisis zone or a riot,” he says. “You come out stronger than when you went in. You are in a bit of danger. It was just like the tear gassing in Mississippi or in Bosnia.” Photographing the incident as it appears “means you’ve done your job, and you’ve done the best you can.”
As a photojournalist constantly exposed to danger, it seems plausible that Benson’s emotions might, in moments of life or death, get the best of him. As Kennedy lay dying, as a policewoman strapped on a gasmask before tear gassing an unsuspecting crowd—Benson could have intervened. “No, never,” he says. “Never. You let the army do what they do. You let the police do what they do. That’s not my job. My job is to record what’s happening.”
Isabel Wilkinson is an assistant editor at The Daily Beast.