If a picture paints a thousand words, just one of Dave Benett’s photos bashes out a lengthy think-piece on the changing face of celebrity culture. Although he’s now best known as London’s premiere high society photographer, Benett has plenty of fond memories of his early days as one of the city’s first paparazzo.
“I don’t shy away from it,” he says. “I’m not [a paparazzo] now and I haven’t been for over 25 years, but I don’t deny it because street paparazzi is a really good way of telling a story about a period of time.” Over his decades-long career, Benett has been responsible for snapping some of the most recognisable images in pop culture history, like Geri Halliwell ushering the arrival of Girl Power in that Union Jack dress at the 1997 Brit Awards and Naomi Campbell sparking a fag off a candle in the same year.
When it comes to paparazzi-style photography, “you’re either a good guy or a bad guy,” Benett reckons. “We were a bit cheeky, but we were inherently good guys,” he says, recalling his early days as part of a pack of about six London paps. “It helps to be a good guy.”
It certainly helped him. Later this week, Benett opens his first-ever solo exhibition at Mayfair’s JD Malat Gallery, a retrospective of his favourite photos from his four decade-spanning career, which has seen him jump from street paparazzo to the trusted, must-have photographer at London’s most exclusive parties.
Ahead of the show’s opening on February 17th, we quizzed the legendary photographer on the tales behind some of his best snaps.
Elizabeth Hurley at the Four Weddings and a Funeral after party at The In And Out Club, 1994
“Hugh Grant was a young actor – not particularly famous then, but obviously we knew him – and his girlfriend was this English girl who made a couple of little movies in Australia. She called Versace and asked for a dress. Now, they don’t know who she is, so someone in the press room said: ‘Oh, what about that dress from last year?’
“Liz Hurley’s incredibly clever here. She knew that because it was Four Weddings and a Funeral, everyone would come in white, summery wedding outfits. They all did except for Liz, who gets this dress practically as a cast-off. Like ‘Oh, go on then, give it to her,’ because they really didn’t know who she was. And oh my God, could she wear that dress?!
“I’ve seen many other models try to wear it and it really doesn’t work. It was that whole girl next door-ness of Elizabeth. She was just so fresh and young, and she knew exactly what she was doing.
“At this stage, the couple had been photographed at the cinema. They were arriving at the after-party and I just knew we needed something else. I realised the dress needed some movement. When she stood still, everything would go inwards, so I needed some movement to make it expand and hug her.
“I left the other photographers who got her coming out of the car. I climbed the steps to the In And Out Club and, as they came up, I just went ‘Elizabeth!’ and she knew. You can see she’s waiting for that picture. Hugh doesn’t know, he’s walking in – it’s her picture. She just swivels around and bang! The rest is history. Unbelievable.”
Geri Halliwell at the BRIT Awards, 1997
“I’m part of a group of five lucky guys who are always at the BRITs and, particularly in that period, we would be there early, all day. We’d shoot rehearsals, dress rehearsals and then the event, so we sort of knew what was going to happen. This was probably a dress rehearsal. Geri wore that dress and it just became an iconic picture of that period. This was a time in her life when she was trying to be a little rockstar. She just had so much front.
“It was a funny dynamic with Geri and the media, because she was the instigator and then the victim, I thought. I was actually involved with finding her when she went ‘missing’ after leaving the band. I’m the guy who found her in the south of France. I took quite a famous picture of her sitting down reading a book with a little puppy.
“People don’t realise the importance of the Spice Girls. They changed, particularly in England, the society, the look and the ambition of young girls, and they were of every walk of life – you couldn’t have asked for more.”
Kate Moss and Naomi Campbell at the De Beers x Versace Diamonds Are Forever Show at Syon House, 1999
“This was taken at a Versace charity gala. All the girls were there, from Linda Evangelista to Kate and Naomi. What I liked about this is that it was sort of the first time where Kate was leading. That’s the dynamic here which, to me, is interesting because normally in those days, you always thought of Naomi as the leader. But in this particular shot, you can see Kate’s got much more of a drive to her. Naomi’s just smiling, going along with her. This picture, ridiculously, has been turned into art so many times, I can’t tell you. People paint it, draw it, it’s incredible.
“I’ve always said the great thing about Kate Moss is if you looked around a room, you wouldn’t see her until the camera does. She could quite easily blend in; she’d be sat in the corner with some friends and you wouldn’t really see her. The camera lens is totally in love with her, so the minute you take a picture, it completely changes.”
Amy Winehouse at the South Bank Show Awards in The Savoy Hotel, 2007
“I chose this picture because I wanted to show what Amy was like when she was really well. She was such a lovely girl and beautiful to photograph. Shy-ish, giggly, not aware of how beautiful she was, I’d say. You’d have to really cajole her to make her feel her own sort of sexuality. And of course, that beautiful hairstyle.
“I was lucky enough to meet her literally when she first started, at an all-women tribute to Billie Holiday at the Barbican with about 15 amazing singers. I remember walking away to leave and I heard that voice. I turned around to see this amazing, buxom, beautiful girl just singing with a voice that sounded 100 years old, like it’d be driven through gravel. I was like, ‘Where did that incredible voice come from?’
“The saddest thing about Amy is that she practically drew her own future, because all the music she made was so tragic and sad. Then she sadly met the husband… but she set that path up. That was the reality she wanted to present, a very dangerous one, and the rest is history, I suppose. The last few events we were doing with her, you practically didn’t want to photograph her because it was all just going so downhill. That’s probably one of the saddest stories in my career.”
Elton John and Gianni Versace at the opening of the first Versace store in London, 1992
“That particular period was incredible. Gianni was the king of fashion, he pretty much kicked out all the others. He really brought fun back to fashion and everyone was enjoying that. It went hand in hand with rock and roll, so obviously, Elton wore Gianni all the time.
“It was an amazing opening party. Sting was there, nearly everyone was there. We were even sent Versace shirts to wear for that night. I think they chased me for nearly three months trying to get the shirt back because we weren’t given them, we were loaned them.
“It was an incredible night with Gianni as the king. Elton, who was already established as a rock and roll guy, was then becoming the superstar. Post-Live Aid, all those guys were in the upper echelons of showbiz – megastars, practically. David Bowie, Eric for a while, Elton and, obviously, the Stones.”
Princess Diana and Liza Minelli at the after-party of Stepping Out in the Langham Hilton Hotel, 1991
“This could be an advert for Coca-Cola, couldn’t it? I was lucky here, I had about eight seconds to take this picture. Diana loved dance so much that she went to the party unofficially. She knew I was there. The organisers asked if she’d mind if I took a couple of pictures and she said, “Not at all’. She’s not even really posing, she’s just chatting with Liza. It’s like a little whisper and giggle. You sort of wonder whether Liza’s saying something about me and Diana’s giggling about it? Maybe she was – I was a good-looking guy in those days, so you never know! But that’s what makes it work, it’s the real laugh that Diana’s got there.
“I was fortunate enough to only photograph her when she came to events that I was already at, like this. I’m not a royal photographer, but I’m the showbiz photographer that royals would come to, so it’s a whole different relationship, luckily. She was very pleasant because we had a good relationship and she knew I wasn’t gonna do anything naughty.”