In 1958, HOWARD BINGHAM, hoping to turn a hobby into a trade, took a beginner’s course in photography at a local community college where his instructor, after handing Bingham an “F”, advised him to try something else. Photography, he was told, would not be a prudent field to choose as his life’s work. But Bingham’s inner voice told him otherwise and he has spent the better part of the last three decades photographing many of America’s historical turning points, as well as one of the world’s best known and most beloved figures, Muhammad Ali.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1939, Howard moved to Los Angeles with his parents at age four. He was educated in the city’s public schools, and attended Compton College. After receiving that eye-opening “F” in photography, Bingham was determined to hone his craft, so he apprenticed at the Los Angeles Sentinel, one of the country’s largest black newspapers. After a month, he was hired. That job lasted for about 18 months, when he was fired — for trying to augment his $75.00 weekly salary by moonlighting as a wedding photographer.
It was while working at the Sentinel in 1962 that Bingham was assigned to cover Ali, then a brash young boxer from Louisville, who still answered to his birth name, Cassius Marcellus Clay. Ali was in town to promote an upcoming match and Bingham showed up, photographed the event and left. But he ran into Clay a few hours later (he was with his brother, who had an equally ambitious name: Rudolph Valentino Clay…) watching the passing show on a Los Angeles street. Amused, Bingham offered to show the young Clays the town. That impromptu generosity became the first step in a life- long friendship.
Since then, Howard Bingham has toured the globe with Ali, chronicling the athlete-statesman’s every major championship win and loss, personal appearances and diplomatic trips, including a humanitarian visit to Bangladesh and many visits to the African continent. And although most people assumed he was on Ali’s payroll, Bingham photographed Ali simply because he wanted to. “Ali and I are friends. I did not, and do not, make a living from him,” Bingham insists. As Ali’s recognition expanded, so did Bingham’s photographic skills and his reputation for them.
During the turbulent 60’s, he recorded the devastation of virtually every urban uprising of significance. “Wherever there was a riot, I was there. I covered them all.” As a contract photographer for LIFE MAGAZINE in 1968 he journeyed to Chicago to cover the chaos of the democratic convention. A 1969 LIFE photo-essay on Mound Bayou, Mississippi, done with writer Dick Hall, has been likened to James Agee’s and Walker Evans celebrated collaboration, “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.”
He’s photographed celebrities as disparate as Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Malcolm X, to President Gerald Ford. His work has also appeared in TIME, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED, LOOK, PEOPLE, NEWSWEEK and EBONY, among other international publications as well.
While in Ali’s orbit, Bingham came into contact with rising comedian Bill Cosby. Their rapport was good enough that when Cosby nabbed his stereotype-smashing TV role in the Bill Cosby Show, he asked Bingham to work as a still photographer, which eventually led to work as one of the pioneer African-American still photographers in the movie industry — three of them with box office titan Robert Redford. In addition to his paid work, Bingham also devoted several unpaid hours to mentoring young African Americans who also wanted to be in the movie industry.
In addition to his many accomplishments listed above, Howard was the recipient of the “Gordon Parks Choice of Weapons Award” in 2006 and last year was honored by the Congressional Black Caucus with the Celebration of Leadership in the Visual and Performing Arts Award. Bingham is the honorary curator of the Muhammad Ali Center which opened in 2005 in Louisville, Kentucky and serves on its board. Bingham is the 1997 recipient of the ASP International Award presented by the American Society of Photographers. In 1998 he was named Photographer of the Year by the Photo Marketing Distributors Association (PMDA). Bingham also is the recipient of the Kodak Vision Award and Kodak named a scholarship in his honor.
Bingham’s photographs have been seen by thousands in many exhibits around the world and he is in constant demand as a keynote speaker for many worthy events. Today Bingham divides his time between commercial assignments and documentary work. He spends a great deal of time with his two sons, Damon and Dustin.
Howard Bingham’s Exibition the Rumble In The Jungle was exhibited at THE SMITHSONIAN in 2002. His own book Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey was published by Simon and Schuster. Not bad for a kid who was told he’d never amount to anything in his chosen field.