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Pictures of Paul

Harry Benson tells the stories behind the images in his new book

With the Beatles
The story of how I came to photograph the Beatles is well documented. I was working on London’s Fleet Street shooting news stories all around the world and was planning to leave the next day on assignment for The Daily Express newspaper in Africa. The phone rang late at night, and I was told by the photo editor that I was going to Paris to photograph the Beatles. I was not happy about it because I saw myself as a serious photojournalist, but thank God I took that call. It changed my life.

I soon discovered that you could take photos of the Beatles, but Paul had to be in them. A picture of the Beatles without Paul was not a picture of the Beatles. He was the magnet; he was the one you looked at, the one who would carry the mood of the situation. Like the pillow fight photo: without the charm of Paul, it’s just four young men with pillows; he’s the one standing up making the picture. He’s an intelligent man who takes his work seriously, and of the four, he was the one who seemed most comfortable with the fame, welcoming fans, signing autographs, and holding his head up. John would do it, but he didn’t like it. Paul was the leader on any given day, but then so was John. It’s debatable, but I think that without question Paul was the most photogenic.

My favorite portraits of Paul from the Beatles period are the ones on the train from A Hard Day’s Night. You see the self-contained Paul, private moments away from the insanity of Beatlemania.

My other key session from this period is of Paul and John composing quietly at the piano at the George V Hotel in Paris. There are so few photos of them actually making music. I was just there in the background shooting while they were getting down to the business of being the greatest songwriters of all time.

Wild, Wild Life
I was living in the United States and working for magazines such as Life and People. The images from the 1970s were for People. Paul and Linda were living in Los Angeles, working on a new album, and had rented a comfortable house, but not a big “showbiz”-type mansion. Paul is a real family man, and that comes across in the photographs. They were having fun with their life. I remember it like it was yesterday: he was playing the piano, singing. It was a lovely California morning, and Stella came and sat next to him—I love that photo.

I had a very good relationship with Linda. She was helpful and would come up with suggestions about how to make the sessions more lively and natural. As a photographer, she knew what it took to make a good picture. Often the person closest to the subject can be a big pain for me and say things like, “I hope this doesn’t go on for much longer.” Linda was the opposite. Paul would say, “Come tomorrow. 10 a.m. will be fine.” Linda would say, “No, Harry, come at 8 and have breakfast.”

Paul was content in his personal life, but there was also more pressure on him to come up with hits. I went back to their house three or four times and then photographed him in the LA studio. We were pleased to see each other, but it’s not like we sat around talking about the old days. I was there to do a job, and he respected that.

The other session is from the early 1990s. The shoot was for Vanity Fair, near Paul’s farm in Peasmarsh, East Sussex, in southern England. They wanted a more reclusive kind of photo, and so it was my idea to shoot them in the open field. I was up early, scouting the place with Linda. The plan was to feature her and her favorite Appaloosa and have Paul in the background, slowly walking toward them. The last thing he wanted to do was walk several hundred yards on a hot day, but Linda convinced him. It’s a little story unfolding in front of your eyes. It’s easy to see Paul and Linda were a team completely at ease with each other.

Band on the Run
The live and backstage material is from their tour Wings Over America. It had been 10 years since Paul had played with the Beatles in the US, so this was big news. I did maybe four shows; sometimes I would focus on the performance, sometimes on the crowd, and sometimes it was backstage.

My best work from this period is backstage where he’s bursting through the door after a show, lying down exhausted, sweating. Linda told me that he’d never let anyone photograph him like that. You only get that access if they like you and don’t mind you or your camera being there.

I was now part of the crew if I wanted to be, and once after a gig I rode on the Wings plane. But for the other performances, I would go home and catch up with them at the next concert. I didn’t want to hang around too long—they get sick of you, and don’t give you the pictures.

For the cover shot, I didn’t tell Paul to pose. He was just in a good place; he wanted to be photographed. It’s one of my favorites from that period.

The final section of the book is a launch party for the Wings record Venus and Mars from 1975. The party was aboard the luxury liner the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California. I was the only photographer allowed on board, and it was the first time that Paul and George had been seen together in public since the breakup of the Beatles. Bob Dylan, Michael Jackson, Cher, Tatum O’Neal, Dean Martin, and many other celebrities were dancing the night away. I like doing parties because you have 20 minutes to work a room and capture people when the energy is good and everyone is still sober enough and happy. It’s very rewarding; no one wants to go unnoticed at Paul McCartney’s big party, not even Bob Dylan.

I’m proud of the work that I’ve done with Paul over the years. He’s one of the most talented people on earth, but also somewhat enigmatic. He’s managed to live a relatively normal existence despite his enormous fame, and I respect that. As a photojournalist, I’m grateful Paul allowed me to document some private and personal moments in his extraordinary life.
Collector’s Edition (No. 101–700),
each numbered and signed by Harry Benson
Collector’s Edition (No. 101–700),
each numbered and signed by Harry Benson