The Scottish-born photographer Harry Benson found his way to the United States in 1964 when he was assigned to cover the Beatles’s invasion. He was chosen for the prime assignment because he was handsome; according to Benson, the other photographer was too ugly to pal around with Paul, John, Ringo, and George. Musings like this are revealed in Magnolia Pictures’s new film, Harry Benson: Shoot First, a documentary that explores the iconic images of Benson’s career. He remembers history as happenstance; Benson’s just as lucky as he is ferocious. “I’ve had an exciting life, every day is a new day,” the 87-year-old said. “What I’ve learned is that photography is not a team sport. Perseverance counts.” The photojournalist and celebrity portraitist has photographed every U.S. president since Eisenhower, attended Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, marched with Martin Luther King Jr., and documented the Berlin wall go both up and down. Below, he’s shared a few of his earlier photographs with The Atlantic, as well as the stories behind the images. [14 photos total]

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Cassius Clay hits George Harrison at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami, in February, 1964. “I was in Miami with the Beatles for their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show when I saw Clay on television, shouting about how he would beat Sonny Liston, the heavyweight champion of the world. I took them to meet Clay who made them run around the ring, lie down, stand up, while he rang rings around them.” (© Harry Benson) #
Bill and Hillary Clinton kiss in Little Rock, Arkansas, 1992. “Bill Clinton had just won the presidency but had not yet moved into the White House. I flew to Little Rock to photograph him as I had covered the entire campaign. When I asked Hillary to walk over to the hammock where president elect Clinton was lying, she bent over to kiss him. I like the photo because their lips don’t quite meet.” (© Harry Benson) #
James Brown does a split in Augusta, Georgia, 1979. “When I arrived, James Brown had his hair in curlers. He told me to jump in his car and he would show me his town. He stopped the car from time to time, jumped out, ran into someone’s yard, and did the split, singing ‘I Feel Fine.’ The people in the yard were astounded and started laughing.” (© Harry Benson) #
Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball at the Plaza Hotel, New York, November 28, 1966. “The famous party given by Capote in honor of The Washington Post owner Katherine Graham was the hardest ticket in town. People who weren’t invited allegedly went out of town that night! When he arrived, someone yelled at Frank, ‘Hey Frankie Batman.’ He looked up but was not amused.” (© Harry Benson) #
People flee teargas during the James Meredith march in Canton, Mississippi, June 1966. “On the James Meredith Civil Rights March with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., we stopped to pitch tents for the night in a school yard in Canton. The Mississippi Highway Patrol came in with teargas canisters and batons and prevented the marchers from sleeping there.” (© Harry Benson) #
Dolly Parton poses for a portrait in Nashville, Tennessee, 1980. “I had photographed Dolly Parton in her home before—a great talent and a great lady—and have always found her to be charming and personable. But I had never seen her pose with her legs showing in quite this way, so I was pleased when she sat on her bed to pose for me.” (© Harry Benson) #
Edith Bouvier Beale poses for a portrait in Long Island, New York, November 1971. “I had heard about the Bouvier Beale house being cited by the heath department, so I drove out and knocked on the door. After a while, daughter Edie opened the door and invited me in. Her mother came down for the first time in over a year to sit amid the rubble that had become their home. It was several years before the documentary [Grey Gardens] was made. By that time, cousin Jacqueline Kennedy had the home cleaned up.” (© Harry Benson) #
Senator Robert F. Kennedy lies on the floor of The Ambassador Hotel after being shot in Los Angeles, June 5, 1968. He would die from his wounds the following day. “Kennedy had won the California primary and the senator had given his speech. He ended with, ‘And on to Chicago and [let's] win there.’ Following the senator out of the ballroom, I heard a girl scream and I knew something terrible had happened. I kept working because that is what a photojournalist has to do—to record what is happening around him—it is for history.” (© Harry Benson) #
The KKK Imperial Wizard Bobby Shelton shows his pistols in Beaufort, South Carolina, 1966. “I met the [Imperial] Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan in his motel room in Beaufort and asked him if I could attend a rally that evening with him. He said yes but told me to leave when he did because the rally would get a bit feisty when he left.” (© Harry Benson) #
David Field outside London in 1956. “David Field had not gone on his school trip to Norway because his mother was ill and he had given his savings to her rather than pay for the school trip. The plane went down killing all his classmates. Here he is fishing the day after the crash.” (© Harry Benson) #
President Richard Nixon speaks at the Knesset (parliament) of Israel, 1974. “The president was giving a speech at the invitation of Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir. Behind him loomed the massive Chagall mural of Moses with the Ten Commandments. What struck me was the way Nixon held his hands, the same as those in the mural behind him.” (Harry Benson) #
Boys play in a fountain in Glasgow, Scotland, 1956. “I was walking around Kelvin Grove Park in Glasgow when I happened upon a group of schoolboys up to some mischief. The temperature was only about 70 degrees, but they considered it a Glasgow heatwave.” (© Harry Benson) #
Bobby Fischer with a horse in Reykjavik, Iceland, 1972. “During the World Chess Championship in Iceland against Russian champion Boris Spassky, we went out into the fields near Fischer’s hotel. In the field was a group of wild horses and one came up to Fischer and touched his cheek. We looked for that horse again the next night, but he was not there anymore.” (© Harry Benson) #
Mark David Chapman poses for a portrait at Attica State Penitentiary in New York, 1987. “The man who murdered John Lennon was giving his first interview to James R. Gaines since being convicted of the slaying, and I was there to take photographs. Chapman took me aside and said he was sorry for killing my friend, John Lennon. He said he heard John’s voice in his head day and night until he couldn’t stand it anymore, but now realized what a horrible thing he had done.” (© Harry Benson) #

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