They say "you can't judge a book by its cover," but the image of a pillow fighting Paul McCartney on the cover of famed photographer Harry Benson's new book, The Beatles: On the Road 1964-1966, pretty much captures and releases an indelible clue to the remarkable photographs presented within its impressive 272 pages.
Try to imagine the incredible good luck of this Scottish photojournalist, about to board a plane to Africa for a foreign assignment, when he got a call from the photo editor of London newspaper The Daily Express, who requested that he change his plans immediately and instead fly to Paris with a relatively unknown rock group called The Beatles. From there he was off with the Fab Four to New York City, unaware that he was about to become the greatest documenter of Beatlemania in history.
Recently, I had the pleasure to be the moderator for a panel whose distinguished participants included Mr. Benson and were part of "Artist as Author," an unusual exhibition at the Cultural Council of Palm Beach County museum in Lake Worth, Florida. I sat next to Harry during the panel, and for an hour or so pitched questions everybody in the audience wanted to hear the answers to, especially the private stories shared "off the cuff" about traveling with the Beatles. I had the opportunity to observe the master at close range, and I discovered at the center of the distinguished silhouette of this towering figure, topped off with a coiffure of gently waving white hair like a vanilla ice cream swirl, a pair of distinctive brown eyes that seemed to focus carefully like a camera's lens as he examined his surroundings. It's a look I've seen before, during memorable conversations years ago with other legendary photographers--Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan at the Rhode Island School of Design, Amy Arbus in Manhattan or on Ralph Gibson's scenic porch in Sag Harbor--it's their absorbed, expert gaze that gives them away as important narrators of contemporary society. Benson is at his perceptive best with this new and fascinating book--a modern day Rosetta stone--a private discovery that answers many significant questions and offers a convincing argument that this is one of the most substantial and most influential records of early rock history, and perhaps has no equal. To be sure, there have been others, such as photographer Jim Marshall who captured magical moments on stage with Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and the Rolling Stones, but no one anywhere, past or present, ever has snapped such intimate shots of the world's most famous band. I also am reminded of Weegee (the pseudonym of Arthur Fellig) and his stark black and white photos of nighttime action and graphic crime scenes on the streets of New York's Lower East Side during the 1930s; both he and Benson developed a distinctive signature style and an uncanny ability to get the shot.
So, like the advantageous circumstances of an official White House photographer in the press corps, Benson, with his quiet personality and no nonsense approach to picture taking, was welcomed quickly and warmly into the trusted inner sanctum of The Beatles, whose simple, innovative lyrics and music, innocence, youthful exuberance and mop-headed good looks would soon capture the imagination of the world and change popular music forever. He covered their groundbreaking visit to the United States in 1964--his first and theirs--starting with an astonishing shot of The Beatles' arrival in New York as the boys were walking down the steps of the jetway to meet the screaming crowds and their destiny, excitedly and a bit nervously looking back and up at Benson as if to say, "Did you get that shot!?" "Can you believe this!?" Benson was backstage as hysteria evolved into fainting during their premiere performance on the Sunday night Ed Sullivan Show, which was the most anticipated hour program in television history, although now in second place after the moon landing. He followed them on every tour stop, as well as on the set of A Hard Day Night for over two years.
But enough on historic significance and pomp and circumstance--let's take a look at the remarkable overall quality of these photographs. There's a great composition depicting George Harrison below the soaring Eiffel Tower; John Lennon with his hand in his jacket, just like the bust of Napoleon behind him; Paul McCartney sticking his head out of an airplane bathroom, face covered with shaving cream, and in another, classic, odd composition, his head completely hidden by a handkerchief that brings to mind the playful compositions of Elliot Erwitt; the mass welcome at JFK Airport that is simply spellbinding; a purposely blurry portrait of a scowling Paul McCartney that looks like a classic Thomas Ruff portrayal (forty years earlier); Ringo Starr on the beach in Florida, looking curiously like a Bruce Weber photo (again, forty years earlier); and finally, a hysterical female fan who is reminiscent of Edvard Munch's The Scream. Get the picture? It's all in the book, which will fly you around the world, bringing back to life an extraordinary time chronicled by an extraordinary photographer.
You can pick up a copy of The Beatles: On the Road 1964-1966 and meet Harry Benson at a book signing on Thursday, May 16, from 7:00 to 9:00pm at TASCHEN in Los Angeles (at the original Farmers Market, 6333 West 3rd Street). The price is $69.99, which is a bargain for this amazing book, or you can splurge and get a limited edition in a clam shell box for $1,000. RSVP: firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, Benson's audience for collectors of fine art photography has grown larger by the year. After the release of the Taschen book the secret is out and a selection of Mr. Benson's original photographs are available and currently on view in a wonderful show at the Holden Luntz Gallery in Palm Beach (332 Worth Avenue). For a sneak preview, go to www.holdenluntz.com or call 561-805-9550 for more information.