White House Ties
PF Bentley brings his own style to photojournalism and hula girl ties to the White House
Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have at least one thing in common: both are perplexed by PF Bentley’s hula girl neckties.
Inauguration Day, 2001. Clinton is welcoming his replacement to the White House. Bentley is capturing the changing of the guard for Newsweek magazine. He has photographed once-and-future presidents, dodged paramilitary gunfire, drunk beer with Manuel Noriega and eaten beans and rice with El Salvadoran guerillas.
"Ya’ll know PF, huh?" says Clinton.
"Oh yeah, everybody knows PF," replies Bush. "My daddy knows PF, I know PF, everybody does."
"Where does he get those ties?" asks Clinton.
"I don’t know, but they’re hideous," replies Bush.
A professional photojournalist avoids becoming part of the tale. This time, however, Bentley has to have his say. "I took the two of them by their elbows, and I say to them, ’The two most powerful dudes in the whole wide world don’t have anything else to talk about but my ties?’"
Bentley wasn’t wearing a hula girl tie nor had he met any world leaders in 1975 when he applied for photojournalist jobs at Honolulu’s Star-Bulletin and Advertiser. He had just graduated from Mānoa with a BA in education, and he knew he wanted to be a photojournalist.
The editors told him to go out into the world, get some experience, and then come see them.
Bentley took the first part of their advice. He photographed rock concerts for the Honolulu alternative weekly Sunbums, fine tuned his craft and headed for the mainland.
After a stint at the San Francisco Bay Guardian and six-months traveling through Europe, Bentley went to New York, where he met Neil Leifer (later a top Time/Life sports photographer). Leifer encouraged him to work for the newsweeklies, and Bentley made his name shooting American and international politics.
He also produced and shot several half-hour segments for Ted Koppel’s Nightline, contributed to best selling book projects and published two books of his own photography. Among his numerous awards is an unprecedented five first places in the University of Missouri School of Journalism’s prestigious Pictures of the Year.
Along the way Bentley became a familiar face to the powerful and once-powerful.
When Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide was removed from his country and office by United States sleight of hand in 1994, Bentley accompanied three Time senior editors to the secret Washington, D.C., location where Aristide was staying while he tried to engineer a return to power. Bentley had met Aristide years before, when the future president was just a priest. At their reunion, Aristide hugged Bentley, and there was much kissing of cheeks. One editor asked, "Is there any world leader on earth who isn’t on hugging terms with PF?"
The job’s not all hugs. During a 1987 Haiti trip to cover the aborted presidential campaign, Bentley and other journalists arrived at a school minutes after the infamous Tonton Macoute paramilitary gunmen of "Baby Doc" Duvalier murdered 22 people. The Tontons returned and opened fire. An English reporter running just one step ahead was hit in the calf. Bentley hid him under a stairwell, and then ran with another journalist through the narrow streets, jumping over walls and barely escaping to the safety of their hotel.
Bentley prefers covering presidential races in the U.S. "Here, the campaigns are more controlled," he says with a grin. In reality, he chafed under the controls placed on the Reagan-Mondale campaign in ’84 and Bush-Dukakis in ’88. Bentley was one of many "pool" photographers limited to shooting photo ops staged by the candidates’ handlers.
Though he won Picture of the Year awards for both campaigns, he felt hobbled.
"I had an idea: What if I could get in and take real pictures and go wherever I cared to anytime?" During the 1992 primary, Bentley asked Clinton if he could travel with the team and have total access. "My deal was that I would be there, but I would never talk about any details of what I’d heard," says Bentley. "But I told him, too, that I need to trust you that you’re never going to act because I’m here." After a 10-day trial period, Bentley says, senior campaign strategist Paul Begala told him, "PF, you can’t leave."
"I became part of the campaign." But not part of the campaign team, he insists. Bentley says he isn’t a court portraitist, intent on creating flattering images. "All I’m there to do is record history." Asked if he’s a Democrat or Republican, he responds, "I’m a journalist." He doesn’t vote because "I want to keep what I do pure."
His groundbreaking access to the Clinton campaign culminated in his first book, Clinton, Portrait of Victory. Similar unfettered access to Newt Gingrich’s first 100 days as Speaker of the House of Representatives yielded his second book, Newt, Inside the Revolution. The large-format photo books are intimate black-and-white records of pivotal moments in American history.
Bentley contributed to a pivotal moment in the history of photography.
He was among the first photojournalists to abandon film in favor of digital cameras, and the darkroom, for the computer. "You don’t have to call up the courier and have them be at the corner of Elm and 8th at 2 p.m. as you drive by on a campaign," he says. "You don’t have to call editors and have them pick out the pictures you want. You don’t have to call the Time/Life darkroom and tell them how to burn it and dodge it. You can do it all."
Bentley and his wife Cathy Saypol, a publicist who’s had more than a few clients within the Beltway split their time between Kona, New York, Washington and the rest of the world. Bentley would like to help UH establish a program for photojournalism.
Who knows, he may even shoot some for the Honolulu papers. It wouldn’t be the first time. Bentley covered Sen. Daniel Akaka’s last swearing-in for the Star-Bulletin. He positioned himself for a good view of Akaka shaking hands with Vice President Al Gore, but Akaka kept his back to Bentley. "I’m going, ’Could you turn here please? Could you turn here please?’ and he wouldn’t turn. So finally, I go, ’Eh Braddah, pehea ʻoe?!’ [How are you?]. Akaka turns and I go, ’Hey, howzit brah?’ And I got it."
Rarely has a hula girl necktie seemed so at home in the nation’s capital.
PF’s Hawaiʻi highlights
After his parents’ divorce, 10-year-old New York native Bentley moved to Hawaiʻi with his mother. "When we landed in Honolulu, I got to that airplane door, and it was like I had just looked at Oz."
Living in Waikīkī, he was taken under the wing of the beach boys. "They taught me what it was to be Hawaiian. They taught me to be humble and let other people talk about you. What you do tells all."
Bentley attended ’Aina Haina Preparatory Academy and UH Mānoa. Professor of History Gavin Daws had an impact. "We had to walk down to the Varsity Theater in the old days. He would talk for an hour, and [his words] just hold you."
While at UH, Bentley bought his first camera, a used Minolta. From his first roll of film he sold a pretty sunset sailboat shot to a postcard publisher for $35. "I thought, hey, this is pretty cool."
Shoot with the pro
Bentley holds digital photography workshops; the next is scheduled Dec. 6-10, 2004 on the Big Island at the Waikoloa Beach Marriot. He will donate a percentage of the proceeds to the UH Foundation for each UH alum who signs up. He will also donate a portion of the price of any print purchased by a UH alumnus; see his website.