Picturing stars and heroes, great and small

You have seen Harry Benson's pictures, and you remember them. You may not have realized he was the photographer, but some of his photographs stand as icons of popular culture. His latest book, "Fifty Years in Pictures," is a collection of memorable moments and the stories behind their creation.

Benson informs, educates, and entertains, and his book would be a fine addition to any photography-book collection.

He's probably best known for his photographs of celebrities. His picture of a pillow-fighting band, the Beatles, has been seen the world over, as have shots he made when he traveled with the band as they invaded the United States in 1964.

His roster of celebrity subjects includes Ronald Reagan (before and during his presidency), George Burns, Elizabeth Taylor, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Dolly Parton, Fred Astaire, and Princess Diana. If someone has had an impact on American culture, it is likely he has photographed them, and done so in a way that reveals something essential and elemental about them.

But to typecast Harry Benson as a celebrity photographer would be unjust. His foundation in news photography shines throughout the book with compelling images. A 1962 photograph of a lone boy who, at the last minute, backed out of a trip on which all his classmates died, is wrenching. It is a beautiful yet sad image.

That is often the contrast photographers face in covering the news of the world. Benson was on the front lines of the civil rights movement, on the campaign trail with presidents, and at the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the text, he reveals some secrets of his success, and colleagues extol Benson's dogged determination to deliver excellent work. "Fifty Years in Pictures" shows it has paid off.

Andy Nelson is a Monitor photographer.

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