Gordon Parks (American, 1912-2006)
Muhammad Ali on Staircase, 1966
Gelatin silver print on paper
14 x 11 in. (sheet); 14 x 9 1/2 in. (image)
Although his nickname has long been "The Greatest," Muhammad Ali has not always garnered favor. In the winter of 1966, the young world heavyweight-boxing champion began drawing public scorn for opposing the Vietnam War. Having changed his name from Cassius Clay after joining the racially separatist Nation of Islam in 1964, he resisted the military draft, citing his religion. "Those Vietcongs are not attacking me," he declared. "All I know is that they are considered Asiatic black people, and I don’t have no fight with black people." (1) Many in the press criticized him, doubting both his intelligence and the sincerity of his stance as a conscientious objector. In response, Ali became increasingly outspoken and confrontational.
That spring, Life magazine sent staff photographer Gordon Parks to meet and profile Ali. The child of poor black tenant farmers in Fort Scott, Kansas, Parks
was a self-taught photographer who often used his talents to dramatize and combat poverty, racism, and other social ills. Although he disagreed with Ali
on many counts, he sympathized with him on others, and over several months the two forged a friendship. Parks recounted their interactions in a September
article in Life that featured a now-iconic photograph of a tense, sweat-drenched Ali. "Muhammad was a gifted black champion and I wanted him to be a hero,"
he wrote, articulating his initial ambivalence about the boxer, "but he wasn’t making it." (2)
Further along in the article, presciently titled "The Redemption of the Champion," Parks described, in an almost fatherly tone, their discussions about the public’s troubled perception of Ali. He also wrote about a press conference after a London fight at which Ali impressed him and others by apologizing for past indiscretions: "I said things and did things not becoming of a champion." Having watched Ali keep his resolve to behave like "a gentleman" following that apology, Parks closed the article this way: "At last, he seemed fully aware of the kind of behavior that brings respect. Already a brilliant fighter, there was hope now that he might become a champion everyone could look up to." (3)
Parks probably took this photograph, which was not included in the Life article, in London that summer. Neatly attired in slacks and a jacket, Ali stands bracketed not by the ropes of a boxing ring but by a stairwell’s elegant scrollwork and a gilded historic portrait. Head tilted, he gazes contemplatively out beyond the frame of the image, as light falls across his features.
Carefully aligning dress, setting, and pose, Parks captured the young Ali as the gentleman he was striving to become.
--Emily Stamey, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Ulrich Museum of Art
1. Ali quoted in Tom Fitzpatrick, "Cassius Appeals: 'Muslims Not at War,'" Chicago Daily News, February 18, 1966.
2. Gordon Parks, "The Redemption of the Champion," Life, September 9, 1966: 79.
3. Ibid, 84.
The Ulrich’s collection includes twenty-three Parks photographs.
--Patricia McDonnell, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art