“A good photograph is one that can’t be repeated.” – Harry Benson
There are few photographers, if any, whose name is as synonymous with The Beatles as Harry Benson. In 1964, the photographer was in his mid-thirties when he received a phone call from the Daily Express enlisting him on an assignment to cover The Beatles on their trip to Paris. This simple cover shoot became a career-defining moment and a bond forming exercise that resulted in lifelong friendships and, accordingly, some of the most intimate snaps of the Fab Four.
As it happens, 1964 was a hugely pivotal year for the band and he encapsulates their transition with polaroid perfection. What began with the youngers embarking on an impromptu pillow fight at the George V Hotel, ended with the discovery of The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. The introspective lyricism of the young American troubadour turned out to be a seismic turning point for the band.
In The Beatles Anthology, John Lennon is quoted as saying: “In Paris in 1964 was the first time I ever heard Dylan at all. Paul got the record [The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan] from a French DJ. For three weeks in Paris we didn’t stop playing it. We all went potty about Dylan.” There is no doubting that after this period, the songs that the Fab Four were crafting became more complex, lyrically more probing and literary, and more outwardly politically liberal.
Later that same year, they would first encounter Dylan on the 28th of August in 1964 at New York’s Delmonico hotel. It was a meeting akin to something from Greek mythology, and the fateful offering of marijuana from Dylan to The Beatles is now ascribed in history as a moment that shaped their back catalogue in the kaleidoscopic hue of psychedelia thereafter. As McCartney remarked: “He was our idol. It was a great honour to meet him, we had a crazy party that night we met. I thought I had gotten the meaning of life, that night.” Together, the two forces would go on to change culture as we know it.
While Benson may well have called the eponymous pillow fight the best shoot of his career, it is a mark of his skill as a photographer that the collection he captured over the two-year period following the down-feathered fiasco, showing the narrative of the band’s story. There is an evident change in style as he travelled with the band later that year to snap their debut US tour; in the process, immortalising iconic moments like the Ed Sullivan Show appearance and encounters with Cassius Clay as Beatlemania swept the States in an aura of screaming hysteria.
In just two short years, he also managed to capture the filming of A Hard Day’s Night, the infamous fall-out of the whole “more popular than Jesus” debacle, and even George Harrison’s escapist honeymoon in Barbados. All of this and more is brought to life in the luminous monochrome magic of Benson zeitgeist bottling alchemy.
The Glasgow-born photographer would later go on to document the civil rights movement and lend his three-dimensional ways to picturing every US President since Dwight D. Eisenhower, tragically being next to Robert Kennedy at the very moment he was assassinated. It was a moment that he had to steel himself to capture, remarking: “I kept telling myself ‘this is for history, pull yourself together, fail tomorrow, not today’.”
In this two year excursion with The Beatles, Benson put forth his mantra for photography and captured perhaps the finest collection that there is: “The thing about photography is that every day is a new day, even if you are working on the same story, because every day you have got a chance to correct what you did the day before, and try to take it a bit further or a bit back.”
You can find out further details and purchase the unique photobook published by Taschen by clicking here. All the images below are from the Taschen publication.