By Isaac Pockney
Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali
The Gordon Parks Foundation, The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Steidl
Flick through the collection of photographs taken by Gordon Parks during his 1966 profile of Muhammad Ali, and you’ll come across a picture of the fighter alone, in London. He’s sweating through an old school tracksuit, feet planted under the boughs of Hyde Park, cocking his left arm to throw a shadow punch into the morning air. Hood up, his face is obscured. Over the page, Ali is again alone, this time in the back of a car. He looks vulnerable for the first time, cradling his right arm in a loose left-hand grip, eyes distant, hood pulled tight around his face. They’re two of many pictures printed for the first time in this retrospective, yet you’ve seen these images a hundred times before. Canonised by film, they’re idolised in documentary, hyperbolised in ads, and worn by ordinary people as the uniform of sporting dedication. This is the image of the champion. In their natural habitat, champions hunt alone, at dawn, in sweated-out grey cotton. And, when no one is looking, they muse, and they reflect, and they doubt alone too. That much is common knowledge. In 1966, Gordon Parks was enjoying the pinnacle of his career. He’d just spent a decade as Life magazine’s first black staff photographer, published a handful of books and begun composing classical music. A Kansan in New York via the Chicago Black Renaissance, Parks taught himself to shoot on a $7.50 pawn shop camera and made a name for himself turning his lens on a multitude of subjects with lucid intensity––African American life on the South Side, Standard Oil workers in the Northeast, and glossy editorial fashion, to name just a handful. It’s no stretch to suggest that when Life sent Parks to Miami to profile the pariah prize fighter, he held more cultural clout than the champion. Returning to shoot the boxer again four years later, a lot had changed. This book is a direct lens into that period. A joint publication by The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, The Gordon Parks Foundation, and Steidl, it’s a study of one journalist’s representation of the fighter at the peak of his notoriety. Yet it appears to be something a little more, too: a testament to the mutual inference and fraternity which grew between two trailblazers. The marks of their friendship run from the first line of the first feature, ‘Redemption of a Champion,’ reproduced in full at the back of the book: boxers have no business tracking down reporters in their hotel rooms to regale them with freshly minted poetry while they pack their bags. But this is where Parks begins the story, the morning after Ali bloodied British champion Henry Cooper in London. Redemption unfolds as a first-person account of Parks’ conversion to the brash fighter, a meta-gaze on Ali’s maturation before media which ranged from sceptical to downright hostile. Media which included Parks: ‘I felt free to tell him quite directly that I had come to Miami to see if he was as obnoxious as people were making him out to be’. And at times, Ali was just that. Parks was particularly rattled by the royal impetuousness of Ali towards his team of trainers one day in Miami. He spared no punches taking aim at the his less sportsmanlike antics, punches that seem to have landed: ‘When I was campaigning for the championship,’ Ali wrote during their time in London, ‘I said things and did things not becoming of a champion. But I’m a champion now. And today I’m measuring my words. I’m measuring my deeds. I’m measuring my thoughts.’ It’s not clear whether he was already growing towards these goals, but Parks’ assignment seems to have helped precipitate them. In it, Ali might have sensed his last best hope to be understood by someone from mainstream American media. Though a sceptic, Parks was at least sympathetic, and, in his own way, had been shining a light on the same racial issues as Ali for 25 years. ‘I was not proud of him, as I had been proud of [former black heavyweight champion] Joe Louis,’ Parks writes. ‘Muhammad was a gifted black champion and I wanted him to be a hero, but he wasn’t making it.’ This line between champion and hero is hashed out over and over between the accompanying essays. For Parks’ generation of activists, and for Joe Louis’ generation of athletes, heroism came with success, but success with a kind of modesty. But while Ali grew to measure his words and deeds against those of the 1960s ideal, history has since been measuring sporting heroes against Ali’s indelible silhouette. Silhouettes like the one of him alone in Hyde Park. The photographs taken by Parks are much closer in tone to his own earlier work on industrial workers than, say, Thomas Hoepker’s pictures of Ali from the same years. Hoepker tended towards aesthetic flare, framing him with red, white and blue, or shooting a collection of dramatic, bare-chested poses in the ring; on a rooftop; under and American flag. Instead, Parks shot the run-of-the-mill. Trainers patching his dry chipped knuckles with gauze, bursts of bag work, and moments of rest which show the weight of silence on the boxer’s mind. They are, quite literally, photographs of a workplace, pictures of daily sacrifices. And it is sacrifice which came to invert Ali’s image in the eyes of the public, metering his ambitions not by what he was willing to win, but by what he was prepared to lose. Parks’ words and pictures showed a side previously sheltered from public imagination. In her essay ‘The Image of Champions,’ photography curator April M Watson explains at length the cultural context of Ali’s principles and the images taken during Gordon’s assignment. Affluent and aspirational, their general outlook on the loud-mouthed fighter from Kentucky was less than sunny. She notes that ‘Redemption’ uses just three pictures. ‘At face value, both Parks’ text and his images present Ali as an approachable and unthreatening hero-in-the-rough, charismatic and cheerful’. For Life to settle the qualms of its WASP-ish audience, hushing Muhammad was part of the job. The three shots chosen were a close profile of Ali being hugged by a local schoolgirl; an overhead of Ali lying on his back, getting a shoulder rub; and the cover shot: a close-cropped portrait of the fighter immediately post workout, expanding across the full spread as if from darkness. He is bristling with sweat, a pair of shark’s-tooth catch eyes lighting his pupils which are far away in their gaze. It is, in every respect, a stunning portrait. In 2016, Guardian Photo Editor Jonny Weeks noted that ‘for once, it’s a portrait of the champion without a hint of braggadocio’. I do not know if this portrait could have been taken without Ali being extremely trusting with Parks’ lens. In another commentary, ‘The Four Alis,’ essayist Gerald Ealy notes that, ‘if, with the coming of Cassius Clay, he wanted the world to see the boxer and the young American as something different, then the second Ali wanted the world to see the black athlete and the black American as something different, to use the revolutionary concept of the day, decolonized’. It’s easy to see how a desire to shake the portrayal of an historically white media spawned his love of commanding the lens, his public persona of rolling gaffes, posing and poetry: in so many of the iconic photos of Ali, it is he, and not the photographer, that authors his own image. In so many images, that is, except those by Parks. Sure, the posing is still there in some of the plates (an iconic profile shot of Ali sat on his therapy bed gulping at the camera, or Ali throwing a grimace at Parks from the wheel of his Cadillac), but in the main, he is the subject, not the orchestrator of the moment. Which returns us to the cover shot: Ali, without a performative fanfare. Watson also touches on the anxiety Parks felt profiling black Americans for Life. As their leading, sometimes only, African American photojournalist, he was often given these assignments when they arose. There was undoubtedly pressure from two sides: the editorial team of an old fashioned weekly distributed to a majority white audience, and the black individuals or communities Parks’ work depicted. The balance between his personal sympathies and executive expectations in a considerably more conservative era did not always weigh lightly. Most leading voices recognise Parks, however, exactly for his measured judgement of goods and bads in all things. ‘I had always appreciated the way his work revealed the richness as well as the harshness of the lives of black Americans,’ professes Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, acclaimed columnist and basketball legend in his forward to the book, ‘Two Poets of Faith and Hope.’ ‘His images captured the vast depth and abundance of the black experience, the giddy elation and debilitating agonies.’ The photographs from the assignments are grouped separately and are a fitting illustration of both men’s talents. A profile of Ali working a speedball shows his thick shoulders through a light t-shirt. His face is completely relaxed––we cannot even see if his eyes are open. Except for the ball and his right fist, both blurred in motion, he might as well be sleeping; a shadow boxing sequence in front of a mirror, stalking his own reflection, arms framing his rapt face and torso. Perhaps most impressive of all are the pictures of his fight with British and Empire Champion, Henry Cooper. Cooper looks in bad shape. In the sixth round, Ali landed a close right hook, reaping blood from his left brow which starting streaking all down his chest, his torso and his legs. Frame by frame, Ali back-pedals out of his circle; rains blows on Cooper’s bowed head; leads him drunkenly around once more; Cooper, horribly compromised, totters on the points of both boots, arms far from home while Ali glides out of reach. Then the final frame: Cooper sends a defensive jab into thin air, dark liquid smothering his left eye, as Ali plants his feet to swing a decisive blow into exposed flank. In sequence, these pictures develop a sense of rhythm and motion; in the flick of white laces, the spring in Ali’s backpedal; in the rise and fall of his shoulders, the bounce of his dormant gloves; in the tension in his knees and shoulders, the whiplash snap of hips and back. This sequence needs little narration. But other sections are not so independent. Throughout the book, the images are left entirely without adjacent explanation or caption. An odd choice given that these pictures were never meant to stand alone. Odder still is the fact that the same publisher opted to print Parks’ earlier portfolios in the same series with captions. They are neither pictures taken for purely aesthetic appreciation, nor self-evidently revealing enough to be independent. They are moments from a narrative, sometimes mute without narration. And this silence is awkward. Abdul-Jabbeer’s foreword sheds light on why. Contextualising the talents of both men, he notes that ‘[t]hough both were celebrated for their non-verbal art […] what truly bought them together was their powerful use of words’. They both built careers on powerful imagery, yet so much of their legacies came from an ability to explain a moment’s significance as a pastor does a parable. And this presentation is not inconsequential. A double page spread from the time he spent on the first assignment in Miami shows, on one leaf, Ali chatting to someone out of frame, preparing a film reel, underneath a nondescript picture on the wall. It is a beautiful profile, with Ali’s animated face bracketed between two circular reels. On the other, he’s gesturing some people to a projector screen, where a boxer is struggling to reclaim his feet after a knockdown. Ali looks good-natured and excitable. They are both good pictures and make a nice contrast—in tone, in orientation, in subject matter— and they manage to carry through the thread of continuity with the film screening. But beyond this, they are essentially vague. What we, the viewer, do not know until we piece it together from the 1966 Life article, and the later essays, is that the film he’s showing is his first championship defence against Floyd Patterson. Equally, we are unaware that his audience are school children, and that the man in the picture behind him is Elijah Muhammad, one of Ali’s spiritual mentors and the highly controversial leader of the Nation of Islam. Now the meaning of the images is largely transformed. That he needed an audience so much; that he would narrate this dominant performance with such fervor; that he does so under the visage of his outspoken religious associations. All these details make the spread so much richer in its communication. Of course, it’s possible to find all this information out. It’s possible also to read the book loosely in reverse order, starting with the articles, then the essays, before taking on the photographic plates. But that’s slightly beside the point. For a work about two vocal critics, two poets, to allow the silence of obscurity to fall over their work so easily is unfortunate. ‘I speak of a hero’ reads the first line and title of one of Parks’ poems, published in his 1975 volume and printed as an epigraph to the book, ‘with Anger in his heart, with Fury in his first, And terror in his sleep’. We’ve all heard about the anger in his heart, and about the fury in his fists. But against the visual history which lionises Ali, it’s the quiet moments, maybe even doubtful moments, that are the most surprising and the most humanising of all. The solitary park workout. The car-seat portrait. The far-eyed cover shot. The top is a lonely place, but Parks became a friend, and something of a mentor to help Ali navigate its trials. In doing so, he gave us a view we’d never known: the view from over a half-packed suitcase in a London hotel room, of a kid poet, who, drunk on adrenaline, loquacious in victory, remembered to come and say good-bye.
ISAAC POCKNEY reads Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Corpus Christi. He still thinks it's pronounced 'Frevd'.
Art by Ellen Sharman