A new book brings together John Benton-Harris‘ photographs capturing the glamour and glory of the capital over three decades.
Photographer John Benton-Harris discusses his new book bringing together images which capture the glamour and glory of the capital over three decades.
Hailing from the South Bronx, John Benton-Harris dreamed of being a pilot or a Method actor – then he discovered photography at age 14 and found his calling.
Now 81, the photographer traces his foundation to Edward Steichen’s seminal photography exhibition, Family of Man, which he saw at Museum of Modern Art in 1955. “It motivated me to focus on the human condition and to try to explain men to men, and to myself, at the same time,” he says.
In 1962, Benton-Harris “sort of gate-crashed” art director Alexey Brodovitch’s evening classes at the New York Institute of Photography. “He was criticising everyone’s work,” Benton-Harris remembers. “He picked up my work and said, ‘He understood what this project was about.’ Then he looked up to say, ‘Who the hell are you?’”
But Brodovitch was impressed by Benton-Harris’s moxie and brought him into the fold, taking him to Richard Avedon’s famed Design Laboratory. The young photographer most enjoyed their conversations at the local automat after class and lunches with Hungarian photographer André Kertész, who would soon become a lifelong friend.
In 1963, Benton-Harris learned he was about to be called for the draft, so he hatched a plan to leverage his photography talents in the armed forces. Benton-Harris met with industry heavyweights and discussed the idea of doing a project called “Life Through the Eyes of a Private.” They liked the idea, and backed it up with a note of letterhead saying just that – which Benton-Harris then brought to basic training.
“I remember one morning we were on the open field doing calisthenics. It was a very hot day and the men took off their shirts. I was the only guy doing calisthenics with a camera bouncing up and down on my neck,” Benton-Harris recalls.
“The sergeant spotted me and said, ‘Where the hell do you think you are – on holiday?’ I mentioned my references, and he sent me to the post commander. They thought I worked for LIFE magazine and I did nothing to correct their perception. So during basic training I did everything twice, the second time to make photographs.”
After completing military service, Benton-Harris moved to Italy, then relocated to London in 1965. “London excited my imagination,” says Benton-Harris who took a job working for London Life magazine. Although he worked as a photojournalist for the better part of his career, Benton-Harris describes himself as a “visual sociologist”.
Like W. Eugene Smith, Benton-Harris eschewed notions of objectivity, recognising such a feat – while idealistic – was unattainable. Instead, photography could be more accurately recognised as an extension of the person themselves.
With the recent publication of Walking London 1965-1988 (Café Royal Books), Benton-Harris looks back at three decades of street photography and street portraiture. “When I arrived in London, the English were all wearing suits and bowler hats, carrying canes, and in some cases even had spats,” Benton-Harris says nostalgically.
Inspired by the pomp and circumstance, Benton-Harris set forth to capture the glamour and glory of London street life. “I just loved looking at the quirky characteristics of English day-to-day life that just excited the hell out of me.”
Walking London 1965-1988 is out now on Café Royal Books.
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