"The camera is an instrument that teaches people how to see without a camera." - Dorothea Lange

Tuesday, June 07, 2016

float like a butterfly, sting like a bee

I grew up an hour away from Muhammad Ali's hometown. He was one of my heroes. Back then, as a kid, I knew him as Cassius Clay, and I watched every one of his fights on TV. I was ten years old when he beat Sonny Liston. I remember the buzz and excitement of that night. I loved Ali's fierceness and strength, but I also loved his sense of humor, his poetry and his gracefulness. I had never seen anyone so full of himself, but in such a lovable way. Of course, later, I admired his political and religious convictions. And even later,  I was deeply moved by the dignity with which he navigated the assault of Parkinson's.

My favorite photographs of Ali were made by Gordon Parks. These were featured in two articles Parks did for Life Magazine in 1966 and 1970. The article was in the Huff Post last year.

On September 9, 1966, Life magazine featured a story on Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., the rising boxing star who’d recently changed his name to a moniker more familiar to sports devotees — Muhammad Ali.

At this point, Ali had already won the gold medal at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome and snatched the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston in 1964. He’d also become a point of controversy for fans following the champion. Questioned about his connection to Black Muslim leaders like Malcom X, and his conscientious objection to the Vietnam War, Ali was fighting battles in and out of the ring.

The Life photo shoot of ‘66 introduced Ali to Gordon Parks, a Kansas-born photographer who, with no formal training, made his way from photojournalist with the Farm Security Administration to the first African American staff photographer at Life magazine. Parks had previously turned his lens onto migrant workers and sixties activists. Now he was photographing “The Greatest.”

Over several months, Parks and Ali forged a bond that no doubt affected the shots included in the magazine. Over time, Parks had found a way to reconcile the differences between himself and the boxer, and appreciate Ali’s place in the cultural pantheon. “At last, he seemed fully aware of the kind of behavior that brings respect,” Parks wrote at the end of his Life essay accompanying the photos. “Already a brilliant fighter, there was hope now that he might become a champion everyone could look up to.”

The article was called “The Redemption of the Champion.”

Parks’ work was instrumental in bringing the man of butterflies and bees back into the public’s lap, particularly the close-up photo of a sweat-soaked Ali staring wistfully beyond the camera after a training session. Four years after their initial meeting, the photographer returned to Ali’s side, profiling him once again as he prepared to fight Joe Frazier in 1970. Ali was still controversial and Parks was still sympathetic to the human behind the hero. The epigraph for that essay read: “Dripping with controversy, Muhammad Ali comes back.”

- Katherine Brooks

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