A new exhibition at Atlas Gallery will bring together the work of four photographers to celebrate the photographic legacy surrounding Muhammad Ali (1942 – 2016). The photographs on display range from those highlighting Ali’s athleticism, charisma and vulnerability to collages by William Klein, which show the beginnings of his evolution into a politicised cultural icon.
The earliest photograph is the exhibition shows Ali when he was still Cassius Clay, shot by Steve Schapiro in 1963 for Sports Illustrated. Schapiro was spending a few days at Ali’s parent’s house in Louisville, Kentucky when Ali was 21 and had just won the Golden Gloves. Ali would walk around the town with the Monopoly board under his arm and play the local kids, and Schapiro’s shot captures Ali mid-game.
Harry Benson’s photograph from 1964 captures Ali’s meeting with The Beatles. The band had only been in America for 11 days when they visited Miami Beach’s Fifth Street gym for a photo opportunity with the young boxer. At the time, The Beatles were in town to film their second appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show whilst Ali was preparing for his big fight with champion Sonny Liston. The photograph shows both the playful athlete and the band on the cusp of their future success.
In 1966, Thomas Hoepker had exclusive access to Ali in London, Chicago and later Miami. He followed Ali around for several weeks and documented the personality behind the athlete - his wit and intelligence. Shots of Ali jumping from the bridge over the Chicago River and of his fists capture his athleticism, contrasted with a rare contemplative moment in London of Ali praying before his first- round title fight in London. Hoepker captures the vulnerability of Ali scared by a bee on a film set, and relaxing with a bowl of ice cream after a fight. In 1970 Hoepker once more photographed Ali, this time in colour at the Fifth Street gym in Miami Beach – revisiting his 1966 photographs of Ali’s powerful fist.
The exhibition also contains two film still collages from William Klein’s 1974 film ‘Muhammad Ali: The Greatest’ which charts Ali’s evolution into an increasingly politicised cultural icon. The film documents key moments in Ali’s career through the people, events and media attention that mobolised his rise. The collages are from the first half of the film, which is in black and white, and follows Cassius Clay winning the World Heavyweight Champion title in his first match against Sonny Listen in 1964.