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Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, 1999
Naomi Campbell and Kate Moss, 1999Photography Dave Benett

Dave Benett’s photos take you inside London’s most glamorous parties

As an exhibition of the photographer’s work goes on display in London, he talks us through five of his most iconic images – a ‘tableau of ridiculous fame’

“That’s all down to her. She’s done that, she got herself to that place,” Dave Benett says of Elizabeth Hurley, the once unknown, fresh-faced arm candy to 90s heartthrob Hugh Grant, now a bona fide sex symbol and icon in her own right, who singlehandedly catapulted a last season little black dress from the back of Gianni Versace’s sample room to a place in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its own Wikipedia page. “That’s what I love about the people we photograph, they’ve got so much drive,” Benett says. “You know, we are very lucky to be in a game that sees them as our subjects.”

In just over 40 years, Benett has traversed from ambitious news photojournalist to trailblazing paparazzo to his current position, as London’s most trusted high-society photographer. For decades, the lens of his camera has offered the world an expertly-framed window into the glamorous lives of the capital’s elite. To quote the model Alexa Chung: “If a party happens and Dave Benett isn’t there to capture it – did it even happen at all?”

Since his earlier days as a member of London’s originally small, friendly group of paparazzi through to more recent times which have seen him succeed the pack to be invited past the velvet rope and inside the parties, the sight of Benett and his camera have always offered a certain comfort to his famous subjects. “I’m always happy to see Dave’s face at a party or event. I know I’m in safe hands, he’s the best,” explains friend and long-time subject Kate Moss.

Later this month, for the first time in his four decade-spanning career, Benett will take a moment to look back with his first ever solo exhibition at Mayfair’s JD Malat Gallery. The show’s title, Great Shot, Kid, is inspired by a remark made over his shoulder by the legendary war photographer Don McCullin in 1981, who spotted a moment of magic Benett had managed to capture during a bust-up between police and a group of skinheads in Southend, years before his eye for photography would lead him to the blinding lights of movie premieres, award show afterparties and private members clubs.

Ahead of the exhibition’s opening on February 17, 2022, we caught up with Benett to hear what he recalled about the nights he took some of his best-known and personal favourite photos in the show.

Prince, Prince Charles, Donatella Versace and Lenny Kravitz at the De Beers X Versace ’Diamonds Are Forever’ show at Syon House, 1999

“This was at a massive charity event and literally the whole of London was there. It was a real who’s who of high society and to have Prince there was incredible.

The trick of this one was actually to step back. Everyone would have gone for the close-up picture of Charles and Prince, the two princes, but I realised by stepping back, you see so much more. You’re seeing Lenny Kravitz like a sort of Judas on Christ’s shoulder with Donatella. Prince is straight at me, and Charles is there but for once he’s just in the middle of something that’s going on around him. It’s my usual tableau of ridiculous fame, and then Prince Charles is just caught in the middle of it.”

Jack Nicholson and Danny Devito leaving a performance of Crazy For You at the Prince Edward Theatre, 1993

“This one’s not particularly sharp on Jack, but it’s just a great picture so, I can’t not have it. Jack and Danny were in town, they’d done a Batman film together – he was the original Joker and Danny was the Penguin. The cigarette in the background makes it, it gives it that rock and roll life, when guys were still allowed to smoke a cigarette in a car with three other people.

Jack was always fun; he was a kind man and girls loved him. He loved London. I remember him saying to me: ’You know what, London’s the only place where when I step out, I look both ways.’ We were paps then; you can see the way they’re a little bit afraid but there’s a laugh going on. There’s no threat here, it’s all fun.” 

Carla Bruni at The Rhythm of Life Fashion Ball at the Grosvenor House Hotel, 1992

“Ah, she was amazing, beautiful, exotic. This was a Versace gala in aid of the Amazon rainforest. It was one of the first real superstar parties I’d done. Naomi and all the girls were wearing Gianni’s outfits. Eric Clapton was there. Kylie Minogue performed, literally everyone was there, it was an amazing night. This photo is just so of the period, isn’t it? Glass, drink, cigarette. I probably wouldn’t be taking that picture now, but in those days, it was rock and roll and it just worked. 

It’s totally candid. I was part of the party, just working the room, I saw her do that and I just went ’click’. She was just so sexy that everyone loved it – it’s not like a bad picture of someone smoking. She’s actually technically not smoking – she’s drinking! It’s just what a superstar does, it makes the picture look great. I’ve got loads of those [smoking shots], it’s just rock and roll and it was of the time.”

Paris Hilton’s 21st birthday party at the Stork Rooms, 2002

“I was very lucky with Paris. She really liked me so I was always at her parties. Even clubs would call up and say, ’We’ve got Paris here and she said ’It’s OK if Dave comes down.’’ If Paris Hilton was at your club, your club was on the map. She created the currency of that. I mean, literal currency too because she’d eventually be paid to be there. 

She attracted a great crowd and she was a party girl but I don’t think she was ever drunk. I really don’t, she’s too much of a straight head on her. She had that inner party girl, she’d make everything happen the minute she walked through the door.

“If Paris Hilton was at your club, your club was on the map” – Dave Benett

She had the name but I always thought she seemed to be doing this all on her own. She was a one girl army, a real hard-working girl. She really didn’t need the name, she was just That Girl. She has an incredible ability to talk to anyone. I remember once she presented at the NME Awards, a real rock and roll event in London, and when she first came out they were booing but then before the end of it, they were all cheering for her. Why? Because she just is That Girl.

This is her 21st birthday in London, she had parties all around the world. She was on the table by the end of the night, she was truly the queen of Wild Childs. You can see one of the Aitken girls behind her in awe just to be that close to this amazing queen of parties. I hear that dress now has a life of its own, another generation of girls about town have worn it which is quite nice, isn’t it?”

Kate Moss leaving Mario Testino’s exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, 2002

“I had got some nice pictures that night but there was something missing. She was leaving with Jefferson Hack and I called her to look over as she was putting on her jacket. As I took it, I was struck by the sheer rock and roll defiance in it. It reminded me of the classic James Dean film Giant. When he first meets Rock Hudson and Liz Taylor, he’s got a rifle over his shoulders and he’s very defiant, saying he knows he’s going to make a fortune, he’s going to be huge. She looks like that. It’s timeless. The cigarette out the side of the mouth is sheer ’Go fuck yourself’ energy, isn’t it? And that’s Kate. 

Out of nowhere that picture became one of my best. When Rizzoli made the book celebrating Kate, Jefferson, who was curating it, called me and asked for it. They included it among 25 years of Kate photos shot by all the biggest portrait and studio photographers in the world – and then there’s my shot. I’m really happy with that.”

Dave Benett: Great Shot, Kid is on at London’s JD Malat gallery from February 17 until March 8 2022