Two Champions: Muhammad Ali and Gordon Parks

Slide Show

Two Champions: Muhammad Ali and Gordon Parks

Credit Gordon Parks, courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation

‘ );

Last Friday, the staff at the Gordon Parks Foundation was putting up the wall text for its latest exhibit, “American Champion,” a show it had been planning for months. It showcased the famous photographer’s connection to another African-American giant, someone who — like Parks — made his mark on a global stage.

Muhammad Ali.

Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., the foundation’s executive director, had known that the boxing great was seriously ill. But when he got a call from The New York Times requesting Parks’s dramatic, close-up portrait of Ali’s face, Mr. Kunhardt knew death was imminent. Indeed, by Saturday morning, the world would know that the champ had died. While many newspapers ran the image of Ali looming triumphantly over the fallen Sonny Liston, The Times ran Parks’s introspective portrait (slide 6) — two days in a row, no less.

“All the other pictures I’ve seen of Ali have been in the fight, in the moment, in the ring,” Mr. Kunhardt said. “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.”

“American Champion,” which opened on Monday at the foundation’s Pleasantville, N.Y., exhibition space, features about two dozen black-and-white images — including several never seen before publicly — that Parks took of Ali between 1966 and 1970 on assignment for Life magazine. Of course, some of the images show Ali’s sleek athleticism or his personality, by turns playful and brash. Others show quieter moments at home or even in prayer. Together, they offer a well-rounded portrait of Ali taken by a photographer he grew to respect and trust.


Muhammad Ali in training for his fight with Henry Cooper. Miami. 1966.Credit Gordon Parks, courtesy of The Gordon Parks Foundation

Maurice Berger, who curated the exhibit “For All the World to See: Visual Culture and the Struggle for Civil Rights,” said Parks’s approach straddled the world between the showman and the athlete chronicled — and, often, scorned — by the white news media, and the hero and family man portrayed in the black press.

“Gordon Parks’s pictures of Ali were particularly positive, important and consequential,” said Mr. Berger, who writes the Race Stories feature for Lens. “Parks was able to convey both Ali’s greatness and humanity. Too much writing on and imagery of Ali in the 1960s and 1970s turned him into a stereotype, indeed a full range of stereotypes — from uneducated or a draft dodger to a superhuman athlete or black saint. Parks captured Ali’s complexity, and not just his extraordinary grace and physical prowess but also his emotional, intellectual and spiritual life. In these pictures, we get a sense of Ali’s wisdom, benevolence and generous personality.”


Muhammad Ali, center, with Gordon Parks, center right, in London. 1966.Credit The Gordon Parks Foundation

Those images, Mr. Kunhardt said, were a result of a bond that formed between the two men. In 1966, after the young champ had joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name, Parks went to Miami on assignment for Life, where Mr. Kunhardt’s grandfather Philip B. Kunhardt Jr. was the managing editor. The images from that assignment, for which Parks also wrote the text, show a young man enjoying the attention from his early victories. Four years later, under fire for his refusal to serve in the military, Ali was again photographed by Parks as he prepared to fight Jerry Quarry. Those images show a man determined, intense and unbowed. There is a quiet intensity born of struggle.

What the images will not show you is a man battered.

“I remember Gordon telling stories to my family about these pictures of Ali after a fight, and his face was all gushed up,” Mr. Kunhardt said. “Gordon said he was going to destroy them. He didn’t want those pictures of his swollen face and battered eyes out in the world. They had this trust with each other. Gordon’s relationship with him came first.” More often, Parks would just put down his camera, and let the moment remain uncaptured.

The Pleasantville show includes not just well-known images but also several that appeared in a 12-print portfolio that the foundation put out in 2014, also called “American Champion.” And Mr. Kunhardt said that in 2019, the foundation would mount a major Parks exhibit on Ali at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo.


“American Champion” at the Gordon Parks Foundation’s exhibition space in Pleasantville, N.Y.Credit The Gordon Parks Foundation

In a way, Mr. Kunhardt’s dedication to Parks reflects the photographer’s relationship with Ali. In recent days, he has been swamped by calls and emails seeking images of Ali. He has been holding off on responding.

“I grew up having Gordon at my house for Thanksgiving,” Mr. Kunhardt said. “This is not just a job for me, but a personal role I have to fulfill to not only keep Gordon relevant, but to also make sure he is not exploited.”

“American Champion” will be on display at the Gordon Parks Foundation’s exhibition space at 48 Wheeler Avenue, Pleasantville, N.Y., through Sept. 24.

Follow @dgbxny and @nytimesphoto on Twitter. You can also find us on Facebook and Instagram.

Source link

About admin

Check Also

Simone Biles Says She, Too, Was Abused by Larry Nassar

“U.S.A. Gymnastics’ support is unwavering for Simone and all athletes who courageously came forward to ...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *