Harry Benson CBE on spontaneity in photography

Beatles pillow fight, 1964

“I dislike studio photography because it’s not spontaneous. Anything you could go back and do five minutes, five months or five years later is not a great picture; you’ve lost the spontaneity… Studio photography is not really photography — it’s dress designing.”

“To me, a good photograph is a glimpse and gone forever. It can never happen again; it’s spontaneous. The Beatles will never have another pillow fight…”

Harry Benson CBE

This quote is from the October 2021 issue of Digital Camera World. I don’t single-mindedly adhere to the quote’s ethos, but I understand, respect, and try to harness its point of view.

There are many ways to analyze the practice and history of photography. I’m an armchair art historian, but I do believe one of the most fundamental axes running through photography has staged photography at one end of the spectrum and spontaneous photography at the other.

Here is a good overview of staged photography: When Staged Photography Becomes Art. Here’s the Tate’s reference page for the Tableau. And here is a relevant video: Jeff Wall advocates for staged photography. In that video, Jeff Wall actually advocates for the “gray space in between”. Jeff Wall is IMHO the thoughtful, soft-spoken exemplar of staged photography, so it is reassuring to hear him advocate for the nuanced approach rather than the slapstick reasoning of the extremes.

Spontaneous photography is typified by the decisive moment of Henri Cartier-Bresson. Here is a Guardian article critical of the current relevance of the decisive moment: Cartier-Bresson’s classic is back – but his Decisive Moment has passed. Author Sean O’Hagan argues that “the notion of the decisive moment no longer holds sway as it once did; staged photography, conceptual strategies and digitally manipulated images have all but rendered it old-fashioned except to purists, photojournalists and street photographers.”

O’Hagan is writing from the “photography as art” point of view. However, thanks to Instagram, street photography is more relevant than ever. Thus, the decisive moment IMHO is still very relevant to the “photography as photography” crowd, and the Internet is big enough for art, photography, and everything in between.

In the afore-linked video, Jeff Wall boils down staged photography to two essential practices: preparation and collaboration. The irony is that spontaneous photography requires both as well, perhaps in different proportions. For example, the Beatles (and Paul McCartney in particular) allowed CBE Benson onto their planes and into their lives [collaboration], an invitation they did not extend to most. And CBE Benson had to board the plane or enter the hotel room [preparation]. So there is a common thread to recognize.

Of course, CBE Benson’s photos happen “in the moment” where life occurs: the hotel room, ringside, on the train, etc. These are definitely not stages like the one Jeff Wall utilizes, where a scene is re-enacted until photographic perfection is captured (often by the chance offered by persistence and repetition, as he admits elsewhere).

Most of us hobby or Instagram photographers will not hang out with rock bands like the Beatles or today’s equivalents. Is CBE Benson right, that our photography can never be as great as his, because we only have access to the quotidian moments of everyday life?

The most important part of the quote is this: “a glimpse and gone forever”. That’s not spontaneous; that’s fleeting. And “everyday life” has its own fleeting moments too. Birth and death, foremost. Youth. Hope is fleeting for some. Even safety. Fleeting moments don’t necessarily happen all the time; you need to be patient. But treating photography as an act of patience is an interesting idea.

A glimpse and gone forever.






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