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.
Photographer Howard Bingham has taken some of the most iconic photographs of the last 40 years, from the civil rights era to today. He is largely known for his photo documentation of heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali, but his work spans from the Black Panthers, to Little Richard, to Nelson Mandela.
Born in Mississippi in 1939, Bingham had little formal training as a photographer; he says he simply "learned on the job."
He was on assignment for a local Los Angeles newspaper when he met a young Cassius Clay, who would later become Muhammad Ali. The boxing great became Bingham's lifelong friend, and Bingham documented Ali's life and struggles on film.
Bingham describes himself as the "Forrest Gump of photojournalism" — frequently "popping up" at just the right time to document some of the greatest moments in American history.
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.
Howard Bingham passed away December 15, 2016.