Anyone with the chance to look at Howard Bingham’s 36 years of photographs undoubtedly can attest to the truly remarkable nature of his observer’s eye. Along with Muhammad Ali, notable images in his collection include those of Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, James Brown and The Beatles. The photos are dramatic, usually candid, and cover a spectrum of locations and events. From the boxing arena to the White House, from Zaire to a riot-sieged Watts, they take us back with ringside seats.
“I look for mood shots,” he says with animated eyes. “I like talking heads, faces, people engaged in conversation. If it is a one-on-one thing, I would have them talking with my camera, talking about life, talking about their children, talking about their wives, just to get them into a mood and make a good picture.”
Bingham’ usually shoots with Kodak black-and-white film and Nikon cameras, including the N90s, F3 and F5. “I have the F5,” he explains humbly, “but I really don’t know how to use it like I should be using it.” If the past is any indication, however, he will certainly accomplish this task as he goes.
Determined From The Start
Bingham’s prolific career began in 1961, when a supermarket box-boy finally had enough of his job. After a couple years of hard work and no promise of promotion, the young college student walked up to his supervisor and quit. “I told them to take this job and shove it,” he recalls, chuckling a bit at the memory. He then developed an interest in photography.
Surprisingly, Bingham failed the photo course he took at Compton Jr. College, but that hardly stopped him. “I went to this guy’s darkroom at the L.A. Sentinel,” he remembers, “and every day for a week, I knocked on his door.” Persistence paid off. After turning Bingham away several days in a row, Photo Editor Cliff Hall finally let him in to quietly observe. The “apprenticeship” included everything from carrying Hall’s bags to picking up food, film, and joining the editor on assignments. After a month, Bingham convinced the paper to hire him.
With a paycheck that barely allowed him to eke out an existence, and little prior training, things were tough at first. “I went out on assignment. I came back with no film, underexposed film, overexposed film, but always had a good alibi for it,” he explains. “It was actually on-the-job training. I learned as I went along.” And learn, he did. Bingham’s job at the Sentinel sent him straight into the heart of Los Angeles, where he began to cover major events in the black community. One such event was a prefight press conference covering the bout between two young boxers.
Friendship Of Champions
“I met Ali in 1962,” he recalls. “He came to Los Angeles to fight a fighter by the name of George Logan, so I met him at the news conference, introduced myself, took my photographs and left. Later on that afternoon, I saw Ali and his brother on the corner of 5th & Broadway just looking at the girls go by. I asked them if they wanted a ride.” Muhammad Ali, known then as Cassius Clay, accepted the invitation, and Bingham showed him around the city. The two new friends managed to keep in touch long after their fated first meeting. When Ali was in town for a fight, Bingham entertained him. He never left home without his camera. The workouts, interviews, social events, and quiet time were all captured on film.
Eventually, Bingham was fired from the Sentinel for moonlighting. His 18-month stint there had been a good experience, but low pay forced him to accept work on the side, work his editors considered an interference. “It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he remembers with a grin. Bingham was then able to become a free agent and spend more time with Ali. What ensued thereafter was a lasting friendship and perhaps the most intimate photo chronicling of the world-renowned boxer. Bingham’s photos capture not only the rise and fall of a heavyweight champion, but also the beliefs, emotions and struggles of a man.
While undoubtedly his main focus, Muhammad Ali is not the only subject that has kept Bingham busy over the years. He has also spent extensive time photographing Bill Cosby and his family. What began as a job taking still photos on the “Bill Cosby Show” quickly grew into a lasting relationship “I have been working for the Cosbys ever since the mid-’60s,” Bingham says, “mainly, because they can trust me.”
In addition, his in-depth photos of the Watts riots earned him national recognition when they were featured prominently in Life magazine. A newcomer at the time, Bingham now attributes this to his honest, nonthreatening disposition and a strange knack for timing. These traits allowed him to shoot the weapons arsenals of rioters and the meetings of rival organizations. “I could walk out of a Black Panther meeting and right into an “US” meeting and no heads would be turned, because they knew me as an individual,” Bingham explains. “They knew that I had integrity.” Since then, his work has graced the pages of Time, Sports Illustrated, Newsweek and Ebony, among others.
Bingham often accepts speaking engagements, is actively involved in mentorship programs and exhibits his photography all over the world. His book, Muhammad Ali, A Thirty-Year Journey, is already published in several countries and will soon make its way to Japan. Most recently, he was presented with PMDA’s Professional Photographer Award at their annual awards dinner in New Orleans. Prior honorees include Harry Benson, Eddie Adams, and Bingham’s mentor, Gordon Parks.
As for the future, Bingham plans to continue his involvement in a motion-picture deal with Sony, based on the life of Muhammad Ali. He will be Sony’s point-person for the film, their consummate contact for information. When asked whether he will take pictures on the set, Bingham nods with a smile. “I will not be the main still photographer, but I will always take photographs for the rest of my life. I like taking pictures, and I will take pictures on the set with Ali,” he says. “I will always be shooting.”