As a photojournalist, artist, historian and archivist of the life of Muhammad Ali, his best friend of more than 40 years, Howard L. Bingham is one of the most acclaimed photographers in the United States. In addition to his countless photographs of Ali, many of which capture landmark times in their remarkable friendship, he has also photographed icons like Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Elijah Muhammed, the Black Panthers, the Beatles and Bill Clinton, and he has won several awards for his photo coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, political campaigns and people who define our most recent history.
Yet, his remarkable career had less than stellar beginnings. Having just left a dead-end job, Bingham decided that he wanted to be a photographer. But after enrolling in photography classes, he flunked. As the oldest of seven siblings, growing up taught him, if nothing else, tenacity: he began hanging out at The Los Angeles Sentinel, determined to learn photography hands-on.
Perseverance paid off, and he was hired for $60 a week to go on assignments from which he, as he tells it, came back with overexposures, underexposures and no exposures—happenstances for which he always had plausible alibi.
Eventually, he shot good stuff, he recalls—good enough for freelance assignments covering the black social scene of LA and for realizing an underlying incentive for getting into the field—meeting lovely ladies. (Today, the young lady he remembers fondly after 40 years is an anonymous young girl who ran after Robert Kennedy’s motorcade to shake the presidential candidate’s hand. Bingham caught her, bounding up to the car and smiling broadly, with Kennedy happily acknowledging his young fan. “That’s one of my favorite shots of the Kennedy campaign,” he recalls. As Bingham says today, “Things have a way of happening.”
In 1962, a fortuitous meeting brought Bingham together with Ali in Los Angeles for a fight with George Logan. After covering the fighters’ press conference, he saw Ali (Cassius Clay then) hanging out on 5th and Broadway with his brother Rudolph. When the two accepted Bingham’s offer to show them the town, a lifelong friendship began. As close as brothers, Bingham and Ali traveled to boxing matches throughout the US, Europe and Africa. “I took my first plane ride in 1963, on my way to see Ali in Louisville, Kentucky—it was also my first encounter with cold and snow,” he says. “Now I spend my life on planes.”
In 1966, Bingham was assigned to cover the Watts riots for Life, a publication lacking black photojournalists at the time. “I became the go-to riot photographer,” he quips. His coverage led to different assignments for Sports Illustrated (where he was also the subject of a cover story), Look, Ebony, Jet and Playboy. “I’ve had a way of being in the right place at the right time,” he says, laughingly inviting comparisons to Forrest Gump.
While he shot still photos of several major films, he regards his coverage of the Civil Rights Movement and particularly a series on the health and social conditions in rural Mississippi communities as main accomplishments. “People did not even have running water in some places,” he recalls. Not surprisingly, he invites comparisons to his role model, the late Gordon Parks.
Despite his busy career, he managed to raise two sons, Damon, 36, and Dustin, 32, and is looking forward to a new political era and the assignments it will undoubtedly bring. “What I am hoping to see next is a major retrospective show of my work,” he reveals.