IMAGINE ALL THE PEOPLE
A Conversation with HARRY BENSON and HILARY GEARY ROSS about their New Book NEW YORK NEW YORK
By Anita Marie Antonini
For PMc Magazine’s January 2012 Beginning and Endings Issue, I had the pleasure of interviewing Harry Benson and Hilary Geary Ross on the occasion of the publication of their new book entitled NEW YORK NEW YORK.
It’s the rare moment in life when the past, the present and the future collide in a harmonious balance. Especially at this time, with a new year ahead, one can see more clearly all that the past has meant and what we have to look forward to in the inspired moments of our future existence.
The portraits in this book give meaning to what NYC was in our past, what it’s like to live in the New York City of the present, and our hopes for our days ahead.
The subjects of this book made an impact on our lives and our city, and their work will continue to live on forever. Like their legacy, the images we have of them in NEW YORK NEW YORK by photographer Harry Benson will remain. It is a book created by documenting a place and a people both historic and personal at the same time.
Commenting on our society with the help of society columnist Hilary Geary Ross, NEW YORK NEW YORK shows our culture is not only shaped but also transformed by how we live our lives and this will influence the generations of people to come in ways that we can only imagine.
First I spoke with Harry Benson, and then his collaborator Hilary Geary Ross.
Anita Marie Antonini: Can you please tell us what it’s like for you to look through the pages of NEW YORK NEW YORK as a document of your life in New York? And also how your photographs have impacted our culture?
Harry Benson: I love New York and have lived here since 1964. Hilary Geary Ross and I collaborated on the new photographs. Combined they make a scrapbook of a slice of New York. I never think about impacting culture because I don’t think that’s possible.
AMA: I am interested to know your decisive moment process. Patrick McMullan often likens it to a dance. It takes good timing and an impeccable balance. It’s not just the charm–although I know that you have plenty of that–there is an expertise that is gained through experience. How do you approach a portrait session in terms of the delicate balance it takes to make a good image?
HB: Usually I have only between 15 and 20 minutes with a subject, especially someone who is extremely busy. I try to keep the subject moving to relax them. Also, I like to photograph people in their own environment as I like to show them as they think they are, not as I think they are.
AMA: Having somewhat of a parallel existence working with Patrick McMullan for over 15 years, I am familiar with his subjects through the images that he makes. Although your work and his are quite different, there is a commonality in a thread of anthropology–the study of human beings, how we live, work and play–it shapes our history and is a testament to our times. This body of work in NEW YORK NEW YORK, as a portrait of the city that never sleeps, shows how you lived it and breathed it and continue to do so. What is it like for you to know that your gaze is our society?
HB: You know, I don’t know how to answer that question. I like to take photographs and never turn down an assignment, so I have quite a large body of work that hopefully some people will find interesting as a document of the times.
AMA: Every portrait taken is also a self-portrait of the photographer himself and yours says to me that there is a common ground between you and your subjects. The trust and respect in a level of understanding and curiosity is apparent. Your interest shows through and you are obviously very present in the moment. It’s certainly a give and take. It is a gift that the people give to you, but your gift to them and us is strong in its prevalence for the viewer. Comments please, on your work as a self-portrait and the exchange of gifts?
HB: I never think of photography in the way you describe it. I think of it as what I do and am lucky to keep doing it. I just like to take photographs that will hopefully interest the viewer and stop them for a moment from turning the page in the magazine.
AMA: Legendary photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt has been known to say that he could not think of doing anything else and that in his next life he wanted to come back again as a photographer. The eye of a photographer sees things that the ordinary person does not see. It is indeed an extraordinary life that lives on forever in one’s imagery. Any thoughts on how your life’s work will live on forever?
HB: Well, Eisie was a good friend of mine and Gigi’s, and we miss him. He was so amazing and a great photographer. I only hope that some of my photographs taken during the last 60 years will interest people now and in the future.
AMA: NEW YORK NEW YORK makes me think: Could there be anyone that Harry Benson has not photographed? Is there anyone that you have not photographed that you would like to photograph? Or is there anyone in particular that you would like to photograph again–dead, alive, or even, perhaps, in another life?
HB: I’d like to photograph Putin. He is a strong character and interesting. I like to photograph world leaders and, having done every U.S. president since Eisenhower, I would like to continue photographing heads of state all over the world.
[Speaking to Hilary Geary Ross:]
AMA: I have been working with Patrick McMullan for over 15 years so I have also had the experience of working on his books and producing his photoshoots. Patrick compares editing for books (as opposed to magazines) to Sophie’s Choice moments. Patrick enjoys editing, but it’s very difficult for him to choose because all the photos are his children so to speak. How did it go with the editing process, any Sophie’s Choice moments?
HGR: Editing was definitely the hardest part as Harry had so many amazing photographs of such extraordinary people that we could not possibly use them all. The book could have rivaled the Encyclopedia Britannica! Think we will certainly need to have another volume (or three, or four) of NEW YORK NEW YORK. I chuckle when I think back on how Harry, Gigi, Wilbur and I would sort through the photos during the editing process. At one point our entire vast front hallway in Palm Beach was covered with Harry’s photographs.
AMA: It’s funny because Patrick McMullan also uses the word “dance” to describe what he does in the realm of his photographic career. Can you elaborate on what it’s like to be on set or out and about with Harry for a “dance” as he makes his magic?
HGR: Harry is such a gentleman with impeccable manners that he instantly charms all of his subjects. He quietly chats, makes a few suggestions, tells a few amusing anecdotes and within minutes they are completely at ease and “best friends.”
AMA: It’s difficult to single out any of the photographs because they are all superb, but I especially admire the poignancy of the portrait of Leonard and Evelyn Lauder taken in their penthouse in 2009 because they are looking at each other so lovingly. With the recent passing of Evelyn Lauder we are all so sorry for the loss of such an amazing woman. I know that she was a longtime friend of yours and a hero to us all.
And the portrait of David Rockefeller Senior holding a cup of Joe perhaps and a half eaten doughnut at the ice skating rink at Rockefeller Center in 2002 is just so wonderful and fitting.
I also have a particular affection for the photograph of Yoko Ono & Sean Lennon in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields taken in 1985, such a loving image. And then to juxtapose an image of John Lennon looking at that photograph is just so beautiful. Plus, the coupling of designers Valentino and Donna Karan in their limos taken in 1984 and 1988 respectively is so so8os if I do say so myself.
Please share with us any of your favorite images from NEW YORK NEW YORK and describe the thought process for the sequencing of certain images.
HGR: Again, I have so many favorites it really would be impossible to decide, but if you twist my arm, I must say of the new ones, especially after having just been to his play on Broadway: Hugh Jackman and his wife Deborah Lee in their beautiful sparkling white duplex in a building designed by Richard Meier overlooking the river.
AMA: The text in NEW YORK NEW YORK is so important too (and on the page with the image) because this enhances the meaning of what the viewer is looking at in terms of the who, what, where, when, and why. NEW YORK NEW YORK is a who’s who of our society. Can you comment on that as a statement in terms of how this defines our culture?
HGR: The people in the book are achievers who contribute to society: they are all doers that give back, there are no “couch potatoes” in this volume.
AMA: The photographs of Arthur Miller and Agnes Barley taken at his country house in Roxbury, Connecticut in 2003, and the one of Diane von Furstenberg in her bed also in Connecticut in 1991, are interesting in their way of how you can take the person out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the person. They are both such icons of NYC. Any thoughts on what it is that makes a person a New Yorker?
HGR: The New Yorkers in this book are unified by a strong sense of purpose, talent, commitment and drive, no matter what their profession or avocation.
AMA: When Patrick & I complete a book project, it is something I miss afterwards. So much of the undertakings define our time together, working hard, but also having a great time (in retrospect). Were there any defining moments while putting the book together with Harry & Gigi Benson?
HGR: The most exhilarating moment was when we saw the first set of galleys and knew we had a splendid book!
AMA: Indeed, it is splendid.
NEW YORK NEW YORK combines the talents of renowned photographer Harry Benson and society columnist Hilary Geary Ross to create a stunning portrait of New York’s best-known citizens. From captains of industry, politicians, movie stars, dancers, artists and best-selling authors to celebrated athletes and society doyennes. NEW YORK NEW YORK captures the glamour of Manhattan from the early 60’s to today in hundreds of black–and-white and color photographs complimented by revealing captions.
Hilary Geary Ross is the Society Editor for Quest and Q Magazines. She has written the monthly “Appearances” column for Quest since 1998, chronicling social activities worldwide. Ross has been part of the NYC, Palm Beach and Southampton social circuit her entire life and maintains houses in each of these locations. She has been featured in Town & Country, W, Architectural Digest, Avenue Magazine and House and Garden, among others. She is currently the President of The Blenheim Foundation Board and on the Palm Beach Preservation Board. She is married to Wilbur L. Ross Jr., and is the mother of two sons and two stepdaughters.
Scottish born photojournalist Harry Benson was the most published photographer in LIFE magazine before it closed and continues to photograph for many major magazines. In 2009, Queen Elizabeth named Benson, a Commander of Order of the British Empire (CBE). Benson has had 40 one-man exhibitions of his work in the U.S. and Europe and is the author of 16 books including Bobby Fischer (powerHouse Books, 2008) and Harry Benson: Photographs (powerHouse Books, 2011). Benson lives in New York and Florida with his wife, Gigi, who works with him on his exhibitions and books. Their two daughters live and work in Los Angeles.
Harry Benson and Hilary Geary Ross interviewed by Anita Marie Antonini
Written by Anita Marie Antonini
Photography by Harry Benson / Courtesy of powerHouse Books
Design by Marie Havens
Special Thanks to Nina Ventura & powerHouse Books!
Yoko Ono & Sean Lennon in Central Park’s Strawberry Fields, near John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s Dakota apartment, and the couple’s favorite spot in the park, now a two-and-a-half acre sanctuary that pays tribute to John, New York City, 1985- PAGE 140, Photography by Harry Benson, Published by powerHouse Books, Photography Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
(Left) Donna Karan, designer, touching up her lipstick on her way to her office. New York City, 1988-PAGE 243, Photography by Harry Benson, Published by powerHouse Books, Photography Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
(Right) Italian designer Valentino leaving the Pierre Hotel after rehearsals for his fashion show, New York City, 1984- PAGE 242, Photography by Harry Benson, Published by powerHouse Books, Photography Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
Philanthropists, Evelyn and Leonard Lauder in front of a Judy Ledgerwood painting in their penthouse overlooking Central Park. Leonard is chairman emeritus of the Estee lauder Companies and the Whitney Museum of American Art, chairman and co-founder of the Alzheimer’s Drug Discovery Foundation and a member of the Council of Foreign Relations. Evelyn is senior corporate vice president of the Estee lauder Companies, creator of the Evelyn H. Lauder Breast Center at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center and chairman and founder of the Breast Cancer research Foundation. New York City, 2009 – PAGE 108-109, Photography by Harry Benson, Published by powerHouse Books, Photography Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
Pulitzer prize winning playwright Arthur Miller with the artist Agnes Barley at his country house, Roxbury, Connecticut, 2003 –PAGE 248, Photography by Harry Benson, Published by powerHouse Books, Photography Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
David Rockefeller Sr., grandson of legendary Standard Oil founder John D. Rockefeller sitting next to the ice rink at Rockefeller Center, New York City, 2002 – PAGE 75, Photography by Harry Benson, Published by powerHouse Books, Photography Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
Diane von Furstenberg, the designer whose wrap dress revolutionized the way women dress, in her Porthault and Pratesi sheets at her country house, New Milford, Connecticut, 1991-PAGE 228-229, Photography by Harry Benson, Published by powerHouse Books, Photography Courtesy of powerHouse Books.
Cover, New York New York, Photography by Harry Benson, Text by Hilary Geary Ross, Published by powerHouse Books.