Harry Benson Remembers His Most Iconic Photos, from The Beatles and Muhammad Ali to Amy Winehouse

The celebrated photographer—and subject of the new documentary ‘Harry Benson: Shoot First’—writes about the stories behind his most memorable images.

Harry Benson

From riding shotgun with The Beatles on their first American tour in 1964 to standing next to Robert F. Kennedy when the Senator was shot in 1968, Harry Benson has been not only present at some of the most memorable moments of the last fifty-plus years, but also expertly captured them with his camera. Now, the 87-year-old Scottish photographer is being given the documentary treatment in Harry Benson: Shoot First, a film directed by Matthew Miele and Justin Bare that is out on December 9th in theaters and on iTunes, Amazon, and On Demand. Here, the celebrated lensman describes some of his finest works—in his own words.

The Beatles with Cassius Clay. 5th Street Gym. Miami, Florida. February 1964.

We flew to Miami for The Beatles’ second appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. They were happy to be in the warm sunshine in such contrast to London in February. Watching television I saw Clay shouting that he would win the heavyweight title from the champ, Sonny Liston. I thought this would make a good picture, but John [Lennon] said he wanted to meet the champ instead. So I went to Liston’s training camp, but Liston didn’t even look up at me when he said, “I don’t want to meet those bums.” Thinking they were going to meet Liston, I took the Beatles to meet Clay at the 5th Street Gym where he was training for his first heavyweight title fight. Clay completely overwhelmed The Beatles, shouting, “ Who’s the Greatest? I’m the Greatest. You’re pretty, but I’m prettier.” He made them lie down, stand up, run around the ring. They had never taken a backseat before. John was angry and told me I had made a fool of them. He wouldn’t speak to me for a month. But when I returned to London to photograph them on the set of A Hard Day’s Night, all was forgotten.

Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. USA for Africa/“We Are the World.” Los Angeles, California. January 28, 1985.

Everyone had to walk past a sign that said, “Leave your egos at the door” when they entered the A&M recording studio for that famous all night recording session of “We Are the World”—and they did. The song, written by Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie, was a huge success with proceeds of over $63 million going to feed the starving refugees in Somalia. The recording session actually did last all night—I was surprised by the camaraderie, as several of the artists had not met before—but they all were relaxed and happy to be participating in the project. I was the only still photographer there and had free access to take photographs all night. I liked the photo here of Dylan and Springsteen as they were relaxed and seem pleased to be there. Going back over the photos I took that evening, I am sorry I didn’t do a book as there are many behind the scenes photos from that night that I think fans would like to see.

James Meredith March. Near Canton, Mississippi. 1966.

In 1966, James Meredith, who in 1962 became the first African American to enroll at the University of Mississippi, began a march to encourage people to register to vote. Shot but not killed on the second day of the march, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. took up the march in Meredith’s name. I was one of only about 10 journalists who covered the march—which turned violent one night in Canton, Mississippi. But I like this photograph because of the way the man in the straw hat is silhouetted against the sky. To me it shows determination in a strong yet peaceful way.

Kate Moss. Paris, France. 1993.

Backstage was frantic at British designer Dame Vivienne Westwood’s fashion show in Paris. I was surrounded by the usual chaos of people running around making sure everything was going as planned—or close to it anyway. Across the room I saw the intriguing Kate Moss waiting her turn to go out. She was standing very still looking straight at me. Her gaze didn’t change as I approached her, continuing to take photographs as I walked. She is the ultimate professional and knew she was giving me a good photograph. When she went out topless into the waiting crowd, she threw her arms into the air to approving applause. Westwood’s designs, always theatrical, looked to me like they were made for Marie Antoinette.

Amy Winehouse. London, England. 2005.

I am glad I had the opportunity to photograph the mega-talented Amy Winehouse when she was enjoying the first wave of her success. The petite young woman was not what I expected. She was all business in the recording studio and was personable and easy to work with when we started taking photographs. She seemed to be feeling great that day and liked being photographed. It’s hard to know what to say without seeming trite, except that I am very sorry her life was cut so short.

HARRY BENSON: SHOOT FIRST, directed by Matthew Miele and Justin Bare, is being released by Magnolia Pictures on Friday Dec. 9th in theaters across the country and on iTunes, Amazon, and On Demand. It will be on Netflix in the spring of 2017.