My Portraits of Muhammad Ali
About 40 years ago, before I had discovered panorama cameras, I spent some time on contract to TIME. This was during the Watergate trials, so I was spending an inordinate amount of time in the Senate Chambers on Capitol Hill or in front of the District Courthouse in Washington DC playing the part of mob photographer with a swarm of other newsies. There was a set of rules I had to pay attention to which had nothing do with photography but everything to do with the freedom of the press.
It was deadly serious, often boring work which mostly occurred indoors, but also had its share of rainy weather and of course, interminable waiting. Of my loose camaraderie with the other shooters, I tried to be friendly to the guys who were definitely more experienced. We were all in it for the long term, and all had our little foibles. Among other notable differences, I was the tallest. Much to their consternation from time to time I tried to rest my lens on the heads and shoulders of the shorter guys. It never worked out, as my platforms were moving as much as I was.
The cast of visiting characters included lawyers like Len Garment and Richard Ben-Veniste, along with witnesses like Rosemary Woods, Alexander Haig, and other movers and shakers with Republican leanings. The judge was John Sirica, who was the uncle of a friend. I occasionally spotted the judge on his midday constitutional while I was out putting nickels in parking meters. We had friendly chats about his nephew and how he was making out as an artist, which in the mid-1970’s, was apparently better than at this very moment.
But I digress. The assignment editors at TIME decided I might make a better location shooter away from the pack of UPI, AP, Post, Star, Times, and Daily News photographers. They sent me to such locales as Fort Bragg, University of Maryland, rural Pennsylvania, gas stations everywhere, and into the DC metro area to shoot cars and the then brand-new Metro which was almost up and running, and yet occasionally I stood guard outside somebody’s garage waiting for them to return after midnight. I shouldn’t complain, as it was better than having to shoot in a coat and tie on the Hill.
Then one afternoon I got a phone call telling me that the next morning I would be leaving home at 6AM to drive to a small town near Reading, PA called Deer Lake. I was to spend ‘time’ shooting Muhammad Ali at his training camp, which the editor assured me was not far and said, “…it’s only three inches on the map.”
It turned out to be about 175 miles, but this was the 1970’s and not only did GPS not exist, but neither did cell phones and many interstates. I mostly drove on two-lane roads, short stretches of interstate, and when I got lost, a lot of turning around got done. I was told I couldn’t miss his training camp, but I did go through ‘town’ twice and finally had to ask a guy who looked me up and down before sending me in the right direction.
When I finally crossed the threshold, Ali was in a dither as I was a half hour late. He immediately set to testing me, which only served to set the tone for our hours together. A member of his crew gave me a brief tour which included the weight room with a wall filled with Ali’s magazine covers, a space for skipping rope, which Ali seemed to do constantly, the ring, and his bedroom and living area. All around us all the time were a crew of guys who were clearly there to provide security. Some of the guys were sparring partners but most glared at me whenever I got within a few feet of Ali, which from looking at the pictures, seems to have been frequently.
Apparently the event was a Saturday morning show for the locals who wanted to come see Ali spar with boxing buddies, and it was clearly a winner, as the packed house clapped at the end of each ‘Round’. Ali took plenty of breathers while his cornermen rubbed him down with herbal muscle relaxant. The whole place exuded a casual charm which worked well with Ali’s persona of being in charge when he needed to be and letting others make decisions when he wanted to step back and either pose or make comments. For a boxer, he was very talkative. He was outgoing, relaxed and most of all, accessible. I never got the feeling I was getting a canned or previously recorded sound track. When we spoke, it was one guy to another, not The Champ to the Photographer.
Mostly what Ali did for me was give me access. He knew I wasn’t a reporter, so he was not trying to impress me with his words. There were reporters who were studiously taking notes on little pads, and I saw one using short-hand. So while those guys took copious notes, I lingered to shoot Ali while he spoke, napped, and relaxed. He asked me if I was doing his portrait and I said, “Yes!” I had recently finished a portrait course and I was putting what I had learned to good use. I hung around until 4pm or so, and marveled at how well two guys from wildly different backgrounds of almost the same age had managed to eke out the level of communication necessary to make great images and be able to laugh about it.
I drove back to DC that evening in a daze. Driving through central Pennsylvania in the near darkness was stressful as there were deer everywhere ready to leap into my path. But as I sat up in my home office later that night, I noted that I had managed to shoot 15 rolls of Tri-X while I tried to not make repetitive shots even though one of my cameras was a Nikon motor-drive. I had shot most of the images with a full-frame fisheye, 24mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm. Lenses were much simpler in those days, as there was no autofocus, no aspheric elements and no short bright zoom lenses. They also were not plastic and were heavy as hell.
When the magazine came out on Monday, I was miffed by seeing that my images had been pushed aside by a single shot taken at the Dick Cavett show where Ali and Frazier had gotten into a playful bit of mild violence which lasted all of about 10 seconds. So my film was returned the following week and it went into my 1973 binder. It sat there for 42 years as I traveled through life, moved to Denmark and back, and moved my studio around the DC area and grew as a photographer and person. Now it’s in a safety deposit box. I could easily have lost all my negatives a couple of times, but I always did my best to protect the collection. I had the feeling that my recordings of the many moments in the lives of others I had shot must one day be worth something to somebody. One of the reasons I became a photographer in the first place was to preserve the past for the future.
So now I’m sitting here with 540 frames of Ali film which agents and image libraries have said are worth millions, but that’s just talk. In reviewing the rights uses, it is easy to see that in an ideal sales world they may be worth lots. For example, if a firm owns 1,962 stores and hangs 1 two-sided banner in each, those licensing rights exceed a million. The images are iconic and few deny that.
The shots provided by Ali’s family are not what a professional photographer would make. Along the way of Ali’s career nobody hired a great photographer to make certain he got the right exposures.The Beatles got it right with Harry Benson, and so did others with other photographers, but I don’t know about Ali. Almost all of his iconic images appear to belong to Neil Leifer, Richard Avedon, AP and UPI, and have been used to death. My favorite shot of Ali standing over a prone Sonny Liston, has been used thousands of times. An acquaintance in Boston has his entire basement wallpapered with that shot
Mine have mostly not been seen by anybody including me, since about Nov 2, 1973. When I finally put the last of them on a new scanner in 2015, I could see some were just flat out amazing. In 1973, when Time’s legendary photo editor John Durniak did the initial edit, all he had was a magnifying glass and he only reviewed 108 shots. In my edited form, the group of best Ali shots is about 26-82 depending on one’s taste and includes the Durniak edits. He only edited the first three rolls, and did not see most of the best. I saw a few shots on the last roll I scanned, and Wow! Shooting 15 rolls might be what got me fired from Time, as they really only wanted about 100 shots to edit, not 540.
According to a member of Ali’s security team, “That guy had unprecedented access.” I guess so, and I’m glad I did. For many of the images, I was easily within his reach. I knew I was getting special shots that day, and as I was doing portraits I was sure they could be great. I was so busy making photographs that I hardly noted the passage of time as after all , I was working with “The Greatest!”