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Harry Benson: Seeing America

Unmissable record of history in pictures

Benson show

In the midst of the momentary mayhem of the Edinburgh Festival and Fringe some things just get better with age.

While the Parliament is in recess Holyrood’s ground floor exhibition space has been converted into a showcase for New York based and Glasgow born Octogenarian photojournalist Harry Benson’s unparalleled work with prisoners, politicians and protestors.

On display from now until 3 December this is an unmissable exhibition charting, serial killers, IRA hunger strikes, US Civil rights, politics and pillow fights.

Harry Benson: Seeing America is the magnum opus of a Glasgow boy who defied the odds and made it out of the East end slums to document the most iconic Presidential and political events of the last six decades Stateside.

Having photographed civil rights leader Martin Luther King, and the shooting of Bobby Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel, perhaps Benson is best known as the personal paparazzi who toured with the Beatles.

He also documented the Clintons and the Reagans and marched in Alabama and Mississippi.

As a prequel to the Festival of Politics running at Holyrood from 18 to 20 August, Benson breezed into Edinburgh for one night only to discuss with parliamentarian Linda Fabiani a lifetime of living on the edge of every major political happening in the US and various war zones.

With a captive audience including his devoted wife and daughter his anecdotes were abundant and each one is illustrated with a photograph in the exhibition.

In a prolific photographic career Benson camera-in-hand captured and rubbed shoulders with all of the US presidents of his lifetime from Eisenhower to Obama, as well as civil rights leaders, artists, crooners, cops and robbers and yes he captured most of it on film.

Fans of Old Blue Eyes look away now. Benson famously photographed Frank Sinatra and then wife Mia Farrow wearing masks at Truman Capote’s annual ball and recalls that the Voice was “just awful and humourless.”

He also recalled that he was called up by ferocious fashionista Tina Brown to save her magazine the ailing Vanity Fair. He did by photographing Bianca Jagger being photographed by Andy Warhol. You couldn’t make it up.

Benson arrived in New York with the Beatles in 1964 – a job he initially turned down as too frivolous. He initiated the famous pillow fight in the Crown Plaza as the mop tops were convinced they would only last a year and yearned for iconic status.

To the delight of many, Benson revealed that he became room mates with John Lennon on that iconic tour and that Lennon was  “a great guy and definitely the leader”.

In 1968 he was assigned to cover Robert F. Kennedy’s campaign and found himself instead covering his assassination in the Ambassador Hotel. It was Benson’s iconic footage of the Latino bus boy giving first aid and Kennedy’s distraught wife Ethel that went global.

Glaswegians don’t come cooler than Benson, a prolific documentarian of the iconic events of the last six decades. Having survived the blitz of the East end of Glasgow it is poignant that he told his captive Holyrood audience that marching through Mississippi was easier than watching Glaswegians raise 14 kids in a room and kitchen.

Rating: *****

 Scottish Parliament, 12 August – 3 December (closed Sundays) Free Exhibition

Photo: By Terry Murden

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