If you speak with legendary photographer Harry Benson, the 93-year-old master will tell you, perhaps more than once, “You photograph what you see, and what you see should inform.” He’ll also tell you, “Photographs don’t lie.”
Both statements are demonstrated resoundingly in his powerful body of work spanning more decades than most people have been alive.
A photojournalist of the highest order, Benson’s vast archive of photographs includes honest, often poignant images of the world’s most important artists, athletes, musicians and celebrities, every American president going back to Dwight D. Eisenhower, and heart-wrenching scenes from history, such as the Civil Rights Movement and the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, among legions of other significant people and moments.
Harry Benson at Southampton Arts Center
While it would be difficult to cover the true breadth and scope of all Benson has managed to chronicle in his lifetime, Southampton Arts Center is doing an excellent job trying with its new exhibition, A Moment In Time: Iconic Images by Harry Benson, featuring a large selection of photographs curated by Sally Martin Katz and on view from next Saturday, May 6 to Saturday, July 15.
“Harry Benson has captured some of the most iconic moments in history in a way that tells a compelling story,” SAC Executive Director Christina Mossaides Strassfield says. “The exhibition is about so much more than photography — it’s about the man behind the camera, his experiences with some of the most notable people, places and events in a generation. Harry Benson is a true documentarian, and we’re honored to present his story and his work.”
Katz, the show’s curator, who is a longtime admirer of Benson, points out “his ability to be at the right place at the right time and to create images that capture the ethos of their era,” adding, “His photographs provide insight into the watershed events of his lifetime and into the characters of the people who have shaped our culture and our history.”
Benson put in the work during his years shooting for LIFE magazine, TIME, Newsweek, Vanity Fair, People and all the other major publications that employed him. And part of that work was showing up and being there, if and when things happened.
“I was with Bobby Kennedy when he was shot,” he says, recalling when RFK was killed in front of him in 1969. The tragedy, as terrifying and difficult as it was, resulted in some of Benson’s most famous and historic photographs, at least one of which will be displayed at Southampton Arts Center.
“The thing about it is, if you’re there when something happens, you hope you’ve done the right thing by taking photographs,” Benson says about capturing the last moments of the 42-year-old politician’s short life. He also describes seeing people shot during Civil Rights riots.
“You want to work for a magazine, you want to work for a Daily Express, but I don’t want to die for it. You learn to take calculated risks,” he explains, adding, “It’s surprising how few people are there when something happens.”
Benson and his wife Gigi worked with Strassfield and Katz to use his wide variety of pictures and Southampton Art Center’s ample gallery space to create distinct experiences as one moves through the show.
“It’s going to be different than any other exhibition that Harry has had,” Gigi says. “We worked to make it where the themes are different for each room, so you walk in and you get surprised from room to room, hopefully.”
“It’s not all depressing. I’m not a peddler of gloom,” Benson interjects, pointing out that he has all kinds of images, even uplifting ones, in the exhibition. “I did a lot of photographs. I’m not talking about one or two — it’s a lifetime of photographs,” he continues, also noting, “It is a challenge to choose photographs from my 75-year career, which hopefully will surprise, delight and engage the viewer, and lead to animated discussions of memorable times past. It is a challenge I accept.”
Two special programs will complement the exhibition, including an exhibition opening reception with Benson in-person on Friday, May 26 at 6 p.m., and a screening of the 2016 documentary about Benson and his life behind the camera, Harry Benson: Shoot First, on Friday, July 7 at 6 p.m. All programs will include a book signing.
Southampton Arts Center is located at 25 Jobs Lane in Southampton Village. For more info, call 631-283-0967 or visit southamptonartscenter.org.