Muhamed Ali stands over The Beatles 1964. Photo Credit: Harry Benson

The Redwood Library & Athenaeum, the nation’s first purpose-built library and think space, announces—as part of its 275th anniversary celebration—the opening of its second summer exhibition, Harry Benson: Persons of Interest, a succinct tracing of the life’s work of renowned photographer Harry Benson CBE.

A gathering of nearly forty large-scale photographs drawn from Benson’s private collection, the show spans his more than 60-year career as a photojournalist working for such publications as Time, Vanity Fair, Paris Match, and Life, yielding a body of work that in its totality cements him as one of the pivotal chroniclers of modern life.

Mia and Frank. 1966, Photo Credit: Harry Benson

Benson is likely to be first remembered as the photographer who documented the Beatles’ 1964 arrival in France and the US, and in its presentation of a handful of his indelible images of the Fab Four the show serves as a preface to Benson’s forthcoming 18th book Paul (Taschen, July 2022), which celebrates Paul McCartney’s 80th birthday. 

Muhamed Ali stands over The Beatles 1964. Photo Credit: Harry Benson

While the mirth and excitement of Beatlemania first secured his professional trajectory, Benson also “took life by surprise,” to echo Vertov, and documented its ups and its downs with surely more strategy than happenstance. For he seems to have snapped virtually every searing moment of the civil rights era and beyond. The show features an astounding string of the most iconic candids of national trauma: MLK leading a charge against oppression; Ethel Kennedy raising her bloody hand moments after the assassination of her husband and Benson’s friend RFK; Jackie Kennedy and her sister in mourning; and a forlorn Richard Nixon at the moment of his resignation. Likewise, Benson has photographed every U.S. President since Eisenhower, creating an unparalleled catalog of the rarest glimpses into the extraordinary lives of world leaders: Kennedy and De Gaulle, Churchill, Nixon, Carter, Reagan, Clinton, and Queen Elizabeth II—all feature in the show.

And if Benson can be said to have been everywhere that mattered, it has been especially so in the world of entertainment and popular culture, wherein for over a half-century he has documented a who’s who: from Frank Sinatra to Michael Jackson to Andrew Wyeth. Even in more constructed portrait close-ups of figures as Ian Fleming or Diana Vreeland—just as in willfully spontaneous snaps bordering on party pics, such as those depicting the range of celebrities who attended Truman Capote’s famous Black and White Ball—Benson reveals an unerring eye for detail and framing to capture what Cartier-Bresson called the “decisive moment,” the flash juncture that fixes an incident as historic. It is a spontaneous moment of intuition, made at once epic and natural by the practiced eye of the veteran photographer. No less than Federico Fellini recognized Benson’s ineffable skill in these exact terms: “[Benson’s work] leaves such an impression of naturality (sic), of natural moment. It is a little magic…”

Redwood Executive Director and exhibition co-curator Benedict Leca commented, “Coming after our 2019-20 Russell Lee exhibition—another photographer with a knack for special moments—one could hardly think of another figure whose work holds so much historical impact, particularly in the context of the Redwood’s 275th. I want to thank the Bensons, and also acknowledge the work of co-curator, photographer Sam Bolton, in enabling us to bring these works to Newport.” 

The show opened on June 29th and will run through October 10th. Admission to the Redwood and the exhibition are free.