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21 December 2016
Howard Bingham, who photographed Muhammad Ali for over more than 50 years, died Dec. 15 in Marina del Rey, Calif. at the age of 77. Bingham called himself the Forrest Gump of photojournalism, appearing out of nowhere to document history.
In addition to Ali, Bingham photographed Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Elijah Muhammed, the Black Panthers, the Beatles, Elvis, Michael Jackson, Gerald Ford and Bill Clinton, among other luminaries in his long career as a photojournalist.
He was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1939, the first of seven children, but the family moved to Los Angeles when he was four.
He learned photography on the job as a reporter for the Sentinel, one of the country's largest black newspapers, headquartered in Los Angeles.
Bingham had a stutter as a young man and wasn't much of an athlete. So he thought photography would be a good way to meet and impress girls without having to do much talking. He flunked a course in photography at Comptom Community College and reportedly overexposed most of his Sentinel shots.
As we detailed in our Saturday matinee Howard Bingham On Muhammad Ali after Ali's death in June, it was on a Sentinel job that Bingham met Ali:
They met in 1962 at a news conference but Bingham had no idea who the young Cassius Clay was. Later that afternoon, Bingham was driving down Broadway when he recognized Clay and his brother standing on the corner. He offered them a ride.
Bingham only lasted a year and a half at The Sentinel. He was fired for moonlighting as a wedding photographer.
But that didn't stop him.
Bingham was assigned to cover the 1966 Watts riots for Life magazine, which had no black photojournalists on staff at the time. It became a regular gig. "Wherever there was a riot," he recalled, "I was there. I covered them all."
Life also sent Bingham and the writer Gilbert Moore to tell the story of the Black Panthers. The Panthers Minister of Information Eldridge Cleaver insisted on Bingham as the photographer. They followed the Panthers from Oakland to New York to Los Angeles but the story was killed over a disagreement between Moore and the magazine. In the 2010 book Howard L. Bingham's Black Panthers 1968, it finally saw the light of day.
His work for Life led to assignments for Sports Illustrated, Look, Ebony, Jet and Playboy. His work as a still photographer on the Bill Cosby Show led to assignments shooting stills for several major films.
And all along, he was photographing Ali, his friend. As Frank Deford tells it in You don't know Muhammad Ali until you know his best friend:
The misconception people had was that Bingham was just Ali's friend. But it's never been only that way. What everybody missed was that Ali was Bingham's friend. It cuts both ways, friendship. For all the loudmouth stuff, all the doggerel, all the braggadocio, Muhammad Ali needed to be a friend as much as he needed to have one. A lot of the time it was just the two of them, quiet and at peace, driving along, hanging out, as often as not staying at some out-of-the-way place in a black area. Just a couple of guys -- one of whom, coincidentally, was the most familiar face on the planet and the other of whom might well have been the nicest person.
Of all his work, he was most proud of his coverage of the Civil Rights Movement and a series he did on health and social conditions in rural Mississippi.
Bingham was the 2010 Lucie Awards honoree for Achievement in Photojournalism.
His passing leaves the title of nicest person on the planet vacant.
Bingham was closer than many knew to Bill Clinton (Arkansas Governor during my grad school tenure). A great loss. Probably the pinnacle of "Simplify."
-- Michael Melneck