A couple of weeks ago, I went to see an exhibition of photographs by Harry Benson, a photo-journalist who has worked extensively since the 1960s. You may not know his name, but he has taken some iconic photographs. He worked with the Beatles in the sixties, travelling to the States with them on their first tour; he stayed on went they returned to the UK.
The pictures on show spanned the decades of Benson’s work, and also his styles. He started off working in Scotland, and moved to London before moving to the States. His earlier work was unstaged, and of ordinary people: football crowds, children playing in the street. He then progressed to events and stars – the Beatles, concerts, politicians (including the Klu Klux Klan).
He was with Bobby Kennedy when he was assassinated in 1968, and the exhibition had the enlarged contact sheet from that evening, a chilling document that moved from politcal rally through to staff sitting numb with horror; he took pictures of Kennedy seconds after he was shot, and of his wife – she hit out at Benson as he stood and photographed; it is a very moving image.
As he grew with prominence, people came to Benson – he no longer had to chase the picture. These staged pictures had much less impact for me – we were seeing what the famous wanted to show. Benson had to get them to show more of themselves – there was a famous picture of Ronald Reagan and his wife, dancing (apparently Reagan’s aides wanted to stop that one) – but generally these pictures were more formal, taken with more time and thought rather than a split second decision.
With time he moved from black and white to colour, he his pictures lost impact that way, too. Since this co-incided with his move to more formal, controlled studio conditions, so it is hard to keep these two factors separate. The earlier black and white prints had more power, though.
This was brought back to me when I saw the exhibition for the Deloitte photographic portrait competition at the National Portrait Gallery this week. Most of the pictures were in colour; but it was the few black and white portraits that really worked for me. The coloured prints looked normal; the black and white ones looked special.
Few of the prints were close ups of the face, but these worked best for me: whilst the others showed the sitter in their environment, it didn’t necessarily add to my understanding of them: instead they seemed floating outside, lost in the background.
I generally disagreed with the judges choice of winners: those weren’t my favourites in the show at all. It is hard to say why I liked those that I did – there was little that united them – but they added something to the sitter, bringing out what was interesting, grabbing my attention.
At the National Gallery was an exhibition of pictures by Tim Gardner. Based on photographs, these were actually watercolours, but they were painted so that they looked like photographs. They were hyper-realist: I had to look really hard to see that they were actually paintings. I will admit this doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me – why paint a painting to look like a photograph. They were very beautiful pictures – landscapes and informal portraits from the States – but I don’t know what painting them like that added to the original photos. It seems like a lot of work for no real return.