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Laureation address - Harry James Benson CBE

Thursday 27 June 2013

Harry James Benson CBE
Honorary Degree of Doctor of Letters

Laureation by Dr Tom Normand
School of Art History


Harry BensonChancellor, I have the honour to present for the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Harry James Benson.

Harry Benson is one of the world’s most eminent photographers and a photojournalist of extraordinary depth and range. His photographs have recorded every dimension of our lives in the last half-century. Indeed, his work is a visual testament to our age and, while some may be unaware of the name of this esteemed photographer, all of us here will have been touched by his photographs.

Born in Glasgow in 1929 he began his career as a photojournalist at the Hamilton Advertiser in 1954 and soon gained a reputation that would see him working for the Daily Sketch and then the Daily Express in London. By the early 1960s he had developed his craft and art to the extent that he was recognised as part of that golden generation of socially-aware, culturally-attuned photographers.

There followed a career of extraordinary highlights. In 1964 he was preparing for an assignment in Africa when the editor at the Daily Express diverted him to a project that would document ‘Beatlemania’ as it swept through Europe. Accompanying The Beatles on this tour he took the defining image of the group as they frolicked in a Paris hotel room; a photograph that gave expression to the optimism and the innocence of that age.
Subsequently Harry would accompany The Beatles on their tours of America and became a favoured photographer documenting and celebrating their triumphs: even, it should be said, accompanying George Harrison on his honeymoon. His reputation now established in America he was commissioned as a contract photographer to some of the most esteemed magazines in the culture; notably Life Magazine, Vanity Fair, People Magazine and the Architectural Digest.

In this role he came to record the history of our age and to produce some of the most memorable images in the canon. It is impossible to do full justice to his astounding corpus of work but it might be noted that Harry Benson was called upon to photograph every American president from Dwight D Eisenhower to Barack Obama; he marched with and photographed Martin Luther King Jr. in the period of the Civil Rights Movement; he has taken formal portraits of myriad celebrities including Elizabeth Taylor, Jack Nicholson, Clint Eastwood, Dolly Parton, Brad Pitt, and even Michael Jackson – in his bedroom. He was present at the Watts Riots in Los Angeles, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans; he photographed the Berlin Wall as it was built, and he photographed it being torn down. He has undertaken assignments in conflict zones including Ireland, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, Israel and the West Bank; in short, the list of his photographic projects and achievements is immense.

In his life’s work Harry Benson has worked as a portrait photographer, a documentary photographer, and as a photojournalist. In the last two of these categories he has been faced with some exceptional dilemmas. On the 5th June, in 1968, Harry was in the lobby of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles with Senator Robert Kennedy. This was the tragic occasion of Robert Kennedy’s assassination and Harry was there, as ever, with his camera. He was faced with that most terrifying of situations and the most dispiriting of predicaments. Allow me to quote from his recollection:

“I don’t know why I covered Bobby’s speech that evening as everyone knew he would win the California Democratic Primary. But something told me not to miss it. ‘And on to Chicago’ brought a roar from the crowd. I followed Bobby out through the kitchen. I heard the scream and it told me everything I needed to know… We had walked out of happiness into hell. I kept telling myself ‘this is for history, pull yourself together, fail tomorrow, not today’. Someone placed a rosary in his hand as he lay on the floor.”

It is this role as witness that Harry Benson has achieved in his life’s work, and he acts as witness for all of us.

In his long career Harry Benson has garnered many accolades. He has won countless photographic awards and prestigious prizes. His work is exhibited internationally; and most recently at the Scottish National Portrait Gallery in Edinburgh, at the Smithsonian in Washington DC, and at the Kelvingrove Gallery in his home town of Glasgow. Naturally, his photographs are in the permanent collections of major galleries throughout the world. His work is presented in photographic anthologies and there are some fourteen published monographs on his creative output. In 2009 he was awarded a CBE. These honours and tributes are testament to the scale and the range of Harry Benson’s achievements. But they also recognise the exceptional quality of his work as a photographer for his photographs display that unique ability to distil an image, to capture the particular moment, to embody the essence of a scene, and to record the ineffable nature of the visual world.

Chancellor, for his countless achievements as a photographer, I have the honour to present, for the Degree of Doctor of Letters, honoris causa, Harry Benson.