CAUGHT IN A QUIET MOMENT, donning a robe while penning a letter. Indulging a young boy in the chance to spar with a champion. Perched on a massage table, wide-eyed with a playful, mock expression of shock. Pictures tell incredible stories.
In life and death, much has been said and written about Muhammad Ali; The captivating photographs that remain add a telling dimension. A world-class athlete, jokester, family man, and controversial figure who became beloved around the globe, Ali was a photographer’s dream. Countless photographers including John Rooney, Neil Leifer and Howard Bingham captured the boxing legend, none more memorably than Gordon Parks (1912-2006) whose images of Ali appeared in Life magazine in 1966 and 1970 (below right). A half century later, the photographs continue to be exhibited widely and, when news broke of Ali’s death, the images illustrated countless obituaries and tributes.
The New York Times obituary featured a tight shot Parks took in Miami in 1966. Dramatically lit, Ali’s eyes capture the viewer. He appears contemplative, possessing both determined strength and vulnerability and sweating just so. It’s the same image that illustrated the opening spread of “The Redemption of the Champion: A revealing personal encounter with Muhammad Ali,” a seven-page feature written and photographed by Parks that was published in the Sept. 9, 1966, edition of Life.
“All the other pictures I’ve seen of Ali have been in the fight, in the moment, in the ring,” Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., executive director of the Gordon Parks Foundation, told the New York Times. “Someone said to me, this picture is like the Mona Lisa of Ali. It’s a portrait of Gordon’s Ali. It has Ali’s essence and spirit.”
Days after Ali’s death, the Gordon Parks Foundation opened “Muhammad Ali: American Champion” (June 6-Sept. 24, 2016), a long-planned exhibition of 22 photographs. The images document pivotal moments in Ali’s career. In 1966, Parks visited Ali in Miami, where he was training, and followed him to London where he fought Henry Cooper. It was a challenging time, based on Ali’s religious and political decisions, which courted controversy. Four years later, Parks photographed Ali for a Life cover story when he was preparing to fight Jerry Quarry in Atlanta. Many of the images now on view at the foundation have never been published.
Days after Ali’s death, the Gordon Parks Foundation opened “Muhammad Ali: American Champion,” a long-planned exhibition of 22 photographs.
A SPORTS FIGURE FOR THE AGES, Ali died on Friday, June 3, in a Phoenix-area hospital near his home. A family spokesperson told the New York Times that the cause was septic shock. Ali was 74. A three-time Heavy Weight Champion, he was a formidable force in the boxing ring and a brash, silver-tongued poet outside of it. He was black, proud, and in his own words “pretty.”
Ali stood on principle and was true to his faith and political beliefs despite the consequences. An Olympic Gold Medalist, he joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name from Cassius Clay to Muhammad Ali. In 1967, when he refused to be drafted during the Vietnam War, he was found guilty of draft evasion. “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Vietcong,” said Ali, who requested conscientious objector status. Stripped of his heavyweight belt, he lost his boxing license and didn’t fight for more than three years until the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his conviction in 1971.
He made a comeback and once again dominated the ring. He regained the heavyweight title in 1974 when he knocked out George Foreman in Zaire, a fight that became known as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” In 1975, he beat Joe Frazier in the “Thrilla in Manila.” Through the years, amazing images of the charismatic native of Louisville, Ky., documented it all.
In the decades hence, Ali became the rare sports icon cum global humanitarian. For more than 30 years, he endured the symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, but his failing health did not stop his engagement with the world. The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville was founded in 2005 by the boxing champion and his wife Lonnie Ali. The museum and education and cultural center focuses on peace, and explores Ali’s life and career emphasizing his six core principles including confidence, conviction, giving and respect.
More recently, he weighed into major news stories. In March 2015, Ali issued a statement to Iran calling for the release of Jason Rezaian, a Washington Post reporter who was being held in an Iranian prison. After ISIS-connected terrorist attacks dominated the news and Donald Trump called for a ban on Muslim’s entering the United States, Ali responded with a statement titled “Presidential Candidates Proposing to Ban Muslim Immigration to the United States.” He never named Trump in the statement, but said, “Speaking as someone who has never been accused of political correctness, I believe that our political leaders should use their position to bring understanding about the religion of Islam and clarify that these misguided murderers have perverted people’s views on what Islam really is.”
Caption from Life magazine, Oct. 23, 1970: “Gagging it up in the locker room, Ali grimaces and challenges the photographer to catch the expression.” | GORDON PARKS, “Untitled, Miami, Florida,” 1970. © The Gordon Parks Foundation, Courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation
MEANWHILE, THE IMAGES CONTINUE to resonate. At the Whitney Museum of Art in New York, a portrait of Ali by Parks is on view in “Human Interest: Portraits from the Whitney’s Collection.” The photo captures Ali after defending his title against Henry Cooper in London The black-and-white gelatin silver print is part of a series of images Parks took for the 1966 feature in Life magazine, but it wasn’t published. The museum describes the image as “characteristic of Parks’s documentary approach. Seated with his head bowed and his hands bandaged, Ali appears as a mythic figure, simultaneously battle-worn and composed.”
Over the past two years, the Gordon Parks Foundation has collaborated with galleries around the country, presenting Parks’s images of Ali at Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York, N.Y., Arnika Dawkins Gallery in Atlanta, and Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans. In Pleasantville, N.Y., when news of Ali’s death was announced, the foundation was mounting “American Champion.”
Kunhardt, the foundation’s director, is the grandson of Philip B. Kunhardt Jr., who served as managing editor of Life magazine. He told the Times that the images are a result of a bond that formed between Parks and Ali.
In describing the essay and images Parks published in Life in 1966, the foundation says the photographer “crafted a psychological portrait of Ali that most Americans might never have imagined; he hoped to rehabilitate Ali’s image by showing the human side of the smooth-talking fleet-footed boxer who often came off as supremely confident, even arrogant, in his public appearances. The article was tremendously popular and helped redefine Ali’s career.”
Parks spent a lot of time with Ali in Miami and London, talking and listening. In the Life article, he recounted their daily routine, which consisted of Ali training and then retreating to Parks’s room where he would down orange juice, read the sports pages and rest. “We talked of things we hadn’t really talked about before—my family and his family. He woke up one afternoon and simply began talking about his childhood,” the photographer wrote.
He recounted the boxer reflecting on his childhood. Ali said: “I used to lay awake scared thinking about somebody getting cut up or lynched. Look like they was always black people I liked. And I always wanted to do something to help these people. But I was too little. Maybe now I can help by living up to what I am supposed to be. I’m proud of my title and I guess I want people to be proud of me.”
“Maybe now I can help by living up to what I am supposed to be. I’m proud of my title and I guess I want people to be proud of me.”
— Muhammad Ali, Life magazine 1966
Parks concluded the article confident in the Ali’s redemption: “For, at last, he seemed fully aware of the kind of behavior that brings respect. Already a brilliant fighter there was hope now that he might become a champion that everyone could look up to If only those back where he was born extended their patience they would help buoy that hope. From where I had watched and listened it all seemed so worthwhile.” Prescient words. Unforgettable images.
The foundation is planning a major exhibition of Parks’s photos of Ali to be presented at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo., in 2019. CT
“American Champion” is on view at the Gordon Parks Foundation in Pleasantville, N.Y. (June 6-Sept. 24, 2016).
TOP IMAGE: GORDON PARKS, “Untitled, Miami, Florida,” 1966. | © The Gordon Parks Foundation, Courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation
Over the course of his career, many volumes were published featuring Gordon Parks’s work—his photography, and also his poetry and prose. Since 2012, the Gordon Parks Foundation has shepherded the publication of several books exploring major photography projects about Harlem, Fort Scott, Kan., his segregations images, a multi-volume collected works series, and more.
Copy from Life magazine, Oct. 23, 1970: ” Ali at 6 feet 3 inches and 215 pounds, is a matured and awesome figure as he bounces a right hand off a sparring partner.” | GORDON PARKS, “Untitled, Miami, Florida,” 1970. © The Gordon Parks Foundation, Courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation
Caption from Life magazine, Sept. 9, 1966: “After a hard workout, Ali gets a rubdown from his masseur, who speaks no English. At 24, Ali is in such superb condition his handlers worry only that he will overtrain.” Miami, Fla., 1966 | GORDON PARKS, “Trainer Works on Muhammad Ali’s Shoulder,” 1966 © The Gordon Parks Foundation, Courtesy the Gordon Parks Foundation