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Harry Benson: 'If I never photograph Trump again I don't care'

Glaswegian who photographed every US President since Eisenhower isn't bothered about his next muse.

By STV News

Published 13 Nov 2016.

Harry Benson has been among war zones, band tours and breaking news with a camera lens for the best part of six decades.

The Clarkston-born expat saw the Berlin Wall go up and come down and was standing next to Robert Kennedy when the American politician was shot.

He first photographed President Dwight Eisenhower in 1959 and has taken pictures of all his successors since.

But when finding out his next subject would not be the first female President, but instead a man he has photographed on many occasions over the last 40 years, he was struck with a mix of distress and nonchalance.

Speaking to STV News the morning after the election result was announced Harry said many of his acquaintances in Los Angeles, where he now resides, were stunned at the news of Donald Trump's victory.

He added: "I'm stunned too. Would I agree with his politics? Not in the slightest, I think it's terrible.

"He was a good character for me to photograph, he was very open and friendly and he saw the joke of what's going on. I mean to say he'd be good for you because he's accommodating and you'd come back with something and not some dreadful bore who's a snob.

"But do I like his politics? No, I think they're terrible. Do I think he's a wonderful stand up citizen? No, no, no. That's about it, I'm talking about business here.

"I suppose I'll do a picture after he gets inaugurated but you know, I've got enough. If I never photograph him again I don't care.

"You know, I've done enough pictures of him. It's not going to change him, he hasn't changed. I've known him for 40 years and he hasn't changed."

It is still two months away from his inauguration in January and plenty of time for Benson to consider just how he will next capture the tycoon-turn-President.

Trump's stance has always been consistent, his facial expression and finger-pointing sometimes lampooned by the general public. But there is a glimmer in the eye which is easy for a photographer to pick up on.

And Harry's keen eye noticed even long before the "Make America Great Again" campaign took off that there was an ambition and aspiration for office in the mind of the multi-billionaire.

Harry told STV: "I saw it all the time, in fact I did a picture about two years ago and said I thought Trump was going to run for President. That is documented that I've said that. Because he had come to the end of what he does and what gives him a kick, what he gets to do in life.

"A lot of people didn't like him, the majority of the people did not like him. Collectively and then they thought he was too gauche and a bit of a joke. I've photographed him enough, he can't look any more different than he does now with his blonde hair.

"I've also photographed Hillary Clinton when she was in the Governor's mansion and the White House through the years. I've known her and she was a very competent person.

"I had a good photograph of Bill and Hillary kissing that was going to be my picture that I was going to let loose! But I've also got plenty of Trump doing all kind of things.

"He's always been easy to photograph, he loves to show off and put it this way - if you went out to photograph him or do a story on him he would give you something that was worth looking at. He would do something for you and basically that's what we're in the business of: people showing you something interesting that they do.

"I photographed ten pages for Time magazine about six weeks ago and the last thing he said to me: 'Harry, I love you'. We've always had a good relationship, that doesn't mean to say that it stays because it can change overnight."

However when it comes to reciprocating the love, Harry is purely on professional terms with the many famous faces he has got up close with.

He added: "I never get personal with anyone. So I avoid it. When they call me after I've done a job, maybe to have dinner or be friendly or just to talk about anything, I never take the call.

"Because I don't want them to say to me 'oh Harry, that picture of me please don't use it' then bang goes my best picture because of someone who said he was my best friend. And he's not my best friend. My best friend was keeping the picture and not being controlled - some people want to control you."

Trump will take Harry's tally up to 12 Presidents photographed with his collection forming many displays over the years including in his publications and exhibitions like the one currently on display at the Scottish Parliament building.

From Eisenhower he went on to photograph John F Kennedy in Berlin and London, Richard Nixon and Jimmy Carter as well as his aforementioned work on Bill Clinton, along with Hillary, and a major collection featuring Ronald Reagan with his family.

Harry also revealed a surprising link between his first photographed President and the businessman he has known for nearly half a century who will be the next man to take office.

He said: "Actually I photographed [Eisenhower] the first time down in Turnberry playing golf. Because the Scottish National Trust I think had given Culzean Castle as a present to him.

"The castle was only a couple of miles away and I photographed him finishing a round of golf there. Then I photographed him again a couple of years later at Palm Springs."

And what of the current occupant of the White House?

"I did a little bit on Obama but I found him cold, a bit aloof" admits Benson. "So did the other photographers who worked the White House, you know, the guys who are there every day.

"George W. Bush who was there before would ask 'how are the dogs' or something like that, he would chat with them. Obama, no, there was no small talk.

"I just let them be what they are - if that's the way they are then that's that. I'm not going in to start a chat with them or anything like that.

"You treat Presidents in a different way because it's historic, and it's historic for the fact that I'm going to be allowed to spend an hour or two with them. While the likes of Clinton or Reagan I would spend all day with them.

"But the time is not to chat around and tell them about me growing up in Clarkston or something, it's no time for small talk really."

There is plenty of small talk in our interview over the phone where he asks if the weather in Glasgow is still "s**t" and recalling where to get the best fish supper in Troon.

When specific areas in Glasgow such as Baillieston come up in conversation it brings him to stories about going home that way on his Vespa from work at the Hamilton Advertiser or covering Scotland for the London Daily Sketch.

It also reminds him of some of the earlier stories he covered including the Peter Manuel murders, as Benson went from a young photographer sent to the scene of one of Manuel's crimes to a well-respected professional sent to speak to the killer before his hanging in 1959.

It's one of many topics that he plans to cover upon his return to Scotland early next year with ideas for another new book.

Ideas stemmed from his own reflections on his long life so far as part of a documentary produced by an American company.

External changes to the world over the years are evident but especially so to Benson who has witnessed many massive changes in history - regardless of where the call came for his job.

He said: "I was in Berlin last year and it changed so much. I did the wall went up and I also did it the day it came down. I was not a celebrity photographer; if I'm doing a cover for a magazine and they want one on a celebrity I'd do it.

"But that wasn't where I was coming from, really, it was part of my job. If I get a phone call to do such and such then I would do it if I want to do it.

"I know I did photograph famous people but I did photograph the civil rights movement, the starvation in Somalia and different places, and with Martin Luther King.

"I was next to Bobby Kennedy when he was shot, I was at the Berlin Wall. I did news stories, I was not a celebrity photographer.

"I photographed The Beatles but after doing that, who wants to do Hall and Oates?"