Collection of the week: John Benton-Harris
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Collection of the week: John Benton-Harris

It was with great sadness that we recently learnt of the death of photographer John Benton-Harris at the age of 83. We first made contact with John around 15 years ago, when researching the people who had been involved in the short-lived but impossibly cool 'London Life' magazine. John had been one of its staff photographers, and our conversation about this led to further discussions about his wider career and the archive he had amassed. The result was our representation of over 1000 of his images which reflect his versatility as a photographer and provide an explanation as to why John preferred to describe himself as a 'visual anthropologist'. His pictures astutely capture the innate character and traits of those who passed before his lens, in particular the people of his adopted country, the UK.

Born in the Bronx, New York, John Benton-Harris studied under the great Alexey Brodovitch and counted Tony Ray-Jones among his close friends. His first assignment in the UK was covering the funeral of Sir Winston Churchill in 1965, and after meeting and marrying Jane Gaffney, he settled permanently in London, although continued to cross the Atlantic - with his camera - and remained fascinated by the street scenes of his native New York and the annual St. Patrick's Day Parade. Although never comfortable with being described as a 'Anglophile' John was one of the best at documenting the English, and several publications and major exhibitions over the years celebrated his natural knack for distilling our national character, perhaps with the cool objectivity of an outsider's eye.

Our representation of John's archive spans various subjects and includes brilliant images of Northern Ireland during the Troubles in the early 1970s. Coming from a large Irish-American family (he was one of twelve), John was always keen to document the experiences of children through his work, and those showing kids playing around lamp posts, or interacting with soldiers on the Belfast streets have a particular resonance, while one photograph of his hotel room covered in splintered glass after an explosion, succinctly illustrates the dangers of working as a photojournalist, then as now. In July 1981, he felt that roaming among the revellers who had gathered in London to celebrate the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer would best capture the atmosphere of the occasion, and he was right. Elsewhere, there are scenes from Derby Day, Bath Festival of Blues, airport strikes, anti-Nixon demonstrations and portraits of various well-known figures such as Mary Quant, Mary Whitehouse, Laura Ashley and Barbara Cartland.

We've selected some highlights from John's archive here while the self-portrait below we felt compelled to share. It shows John sitting in the abandoned offices of London Life magazine at the end of 1966. The staff had come to work to be told the title was folding with immediate effect, and with the insight and prescience that marks out a great photographer, John stayed behind, set his camera low on the ground and took the picture. Above him is the staff photographers' assignment board with his initials, JBH. It was the end of an era for London Life magazine, but the beginning of a new one for John Benton-Harris.

John Benton-Harris, photographer, teacher, visual anthropologist - 1939-2023

John Benton-Harris is just one of a number of prestigious photographers whose work we represent. Others include Roger Mayne, Shirley Baker, John Krish, Paul Kaye, Sandra Lousada, Tim Mercer, Tony Boxall, Henry Grant and Yevonde.

To discover more about our collection visit and if we can be of any assistance, with picture research, quotes or any other aspect of using our library, please get in touch by emailing or calling 020 8318 0034.

Mary Evans Picture Library Ltd.  59 Tranquil Vale  Blackheath  London  SE3 0BS. United Kingdom.
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