Parks x Ali

Famed photographer Gordon Parks photographed Muhammad Ali twice, both times for Life magazine.  The first occasion was in 1966 as Ali was being attacked in the press for his anti-war stance (a few months before Parks photographed him, Ali had filed as a conscientious objector to the draft).  The second time was in 1970 as Ali was making his professional comeback after losing his boxing career for three years due to his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War.

While only several photos were published in Life for each article, Parks took many more, and dozens are published in this book, which coincided with a 2020 exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City.

The black and white photographs are beautifully presented on one- and two-page spreads and showcase the increasing access Parks had to Ali’s moods and vulnerability.  There are very few photos of his boxing matches - instead we see him praying with friends, working out, reading through his own promotional material, or entertaining a crowd.  

Within the book there are also essays by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, April M. Watson, and Gerald Early.  Abdul-Jabbar’s essay is fascinating as he relates his own experiences with Muhammad Ali in the 1960s when Abdul-Jabbar was a new student athlete at UCLA, and later as part of a group of black athletes who were asked to question Ali in 1967 to determine his sincerity in refusing the draft.

The other essays in the book give context to Parks’ photographic work and how Parks felt the weight of being the only black photographer at Life for years.  He is quoted as saying, “Always and immediately the pressure was on ... To the whites, I was definitely on trial, a Negro who had somehow slipped through the front gate.  To the blacks, I was definitely on trial, a brother who had slipped through, but who would probably louse things up for everyone else, forever.  So, at times, I felt that with each achievement I was being pushed farther and farther out onto some lonely island, where I must suffer each new accomplishment until I proved my right to a reward.”

Muhammad Ali famously told reporters after his defeat of Sonny Liston, “I don’t have to be who you want me to be.  I’m free to be who I want.”  But despite his incredible achievements he would be punished for his beliefs during the several years between Parks’ two photo essays.  The book’s contributors note the way Gordon Parks was intensely aware of how Muhammad Ali was perceived by white American culture (Ali’s lack of false humility, his conversion to the Nation of Islam, and his draft refusal being perceived as threats), and the book reveals the detailed decisions Parks made with both his text and photos in an attempt to change public perception of Ali, and show him as a complex person with deeply held beliefs.