Howard Bingham: Photographing Ali And America Howard Bingham describes himself as the "Forrest Gump of photojournalism" — frequently "popping up" at just the right time to document some of the greatest moments in U.S. history. He is best known for his portraits of boxing great Muhammad Ali.
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Howard Bingham: Photographing Ali And America

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is Talk of the Nation. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington, broadcasting from the Knight studio at the Newseum. Tomorrow, Joe Garagiola, the legendary broadcaster, says baseball is a collection of memories and people, not steroids and statistics. He wants to talk about what's right in the game. And he joins Neal Conan for a live broadcast in Phoenix tomorrow. Plus, the financial crisis from Wall Street to your street. That's all tomorrow on Talk of the Nation from NPR News.

Right now, Howard Bingham calls himself the Forest Gump of photojournalism because he keeps popping up as history is being made. A self-taught photographer who learned his craft on the job, Bingham is most famous for his photos of Muhammad Ali, who he began working with when the fighter was still a brash young man known as Cassius Clay. Over the course of his long career, he created lasting images of everyone from Nelson Mandela to Bill Cosby. Howard Bingham is joining us now.

And if you have any questions for him about his photographs or his life or his relationship with Muhammad Ali, our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255 and the email address is talk@npr.org. You can also comment on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. And joining us now in the Knight studio at the Newseum is photographer, Howard Bingham. And he's in Washington to be honored by the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's 12th Annual Celebration of Leadership in the Fine Arts. Welcome to the program, Howard.

Mr. HOWARD BINGHAM (Photojournalist): Hello. I'm fine. Thanks a lot. I'm honored.

NEARY: What does it mean to you to be getting this honor from the Black Caucuses?

Mr. BINGHAM: A very, very big honor for me because for me to have had not a formal education in photography and to have a lifetime achievement in photography here for the Black Caucus is nice.

NEARY: You're self-taught in photography. Tell us...

Mr. BINGHAM: Self-taught.

NEARY: How did you do it? How did you go about learning your craft?

Mr. BINGHAM: I learned it the hard way. I made an F in photography during college. And how it happened was - I was out of high school, and what happened was I wasn't focused in college and the thing was I was having a lot of fun. Don't laugh.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BINGHAM: Because you know, in college, you do not have to report home and things. And so, I finally got kicked out after a couple years. And then the thing was I got kicked out and so I needed a job, and the thing was I had a job and so - a couple of us - my neighbors, they were photographers, and I saw them with a beautiful young ladies and I said hey, I like this. And so, I - so I went to the local newspaper and I said hey, I'd like to help you to do some work down here and I would like to learn. So he said no, come back tomorrow. I came back the next day, every day for five days - come back tomorrow. So after five days, he said OK, come on in but don't bother anything. So after five days, I was there, and I was there a whole month just running errands for him and picking up bags and going out going out for him. And so after a month, he said - after a month, I said why don't you get the editors to hire me?' And then he said OK, if I do that, I have to get half of your salary. And then I said OK, fine.

NEARY: He did, really?

Mr. BINGHAM: Yes.

NEARY: Wow.

Mr. BINGHAM: And so what happened was he went to editor and said that I was this and I was that and wasn't anything like (unintelligible). So I went out on assignments, came back with no film, out of focus film, under-exposed, overexposed and you know...

NEARY: But you just kept doing it and that's how you learned?

Mr. BINGHAM: And it was on-the-job training.

NEARY: How did you meet Muhammad Ali?

Mr. BINGHAM: And after that, I got fired 18 months after that.

NEARY: Oh, you did?

Mr. BINGHAM: Because I was doing excellent work.

NEARY: Because you're what?

Mr. BINGHAM: Doing excellent work.

NEARY: Oh.

Mr. BINGHAM: It was hard, really. You know, these things that I was doing.

NEARY: Did you love it right away? Did you find out that you loved it right away?

Mr. BINGHAM: It was.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. BINGHAM: Yeah, I had fun doing it.

NEARY: It was a way to express yourself at - yeah.

Mr. BINGHAM: Exactly.

NEARY: Yeah. So I wanted to ask you about how you met - well, he was Cassius Clay at that time. How did that relationship start?

Mr. BINGHAM: I met him - he was one of my assignments, and I had never heard of him before and one of the assignments was to cover this big loud mouth coming to town. And so, I went to a news conference and introduced myself, took a photograph and later on that afternoon, I saw him, his brother on the corner 5th and Broadway, and then hollered out and say, hey would you need a ride and he said - no, they were just hanging out on the corner and then I said I have some errands to run, and after my errands I can show them around L.A. And so he said, OK, I'll ride with you. So, I did my errands and then - I'm having trouble hearing myself in...

NEARY: Oh, you are?

Mr. BINGHAM: Yeah.

NEARY: Don't worry about it.

Mr. BINGHAM: Right.

NEARY: You can just turn it down a little bit.

Mr. BINGHAM: I'll turn it down.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. BINGHAM: OK.

NEARY: We need it just because when people call you, you're going to want to hear them.

Mr. BINGHAM: OK. That's all right. And so, what happened was after my errands, I showed them around L.A. I took them to my mother's house to a friend's house and I introduced him to some people at the bowling alley. And so, I was around with him every day for about a week. And so we got to be real good friends and...

NEARY: He must have been amazing to me at that time of your life.

Mr. BINGHAM: There's a whole lot of fun. He liked to have fun.

NEARY: What an energy, huh?

Mr. BINGHAM: Oh, yeah. And so, (unintelligible) fight about thing with (unintelligible) John Logan at that time.

NEARY: Yeah. We've got a call from somebody who I think was an Ali fan. Let's take that call. We're going to go to Leon in Athens, Ohio. Hi, Leon.

LEON (Caller): Hello. Thank you for taking my call. I think it's a real privilege that I get a chance to talk with Mr. Bingham because I'm a big Muhammad Ali fan, and I know of their relationship. And I got two questions for Mr. Bingham. One, throughout your time what would you consider the moment that you captured on film that caught Muhammad Ali or Cassius Clay in his most powerful form, and what would have been the photograph that you think that you have caught him in his weakest moment. The reason why I ask this question is because of the - I got a chance to meet him and spend a couple of days with him at his camp in the Poconos, and I found him to be such a genuine human individual beyond the icon, this image that we have of him. That's my first question. And the second question is, I think you might be able to speak to this. Can you show us the difference or speak to the difference between the personality of Muhammad Ali versus Cassius Clay. And I'll take my answer off the phone, so I can listen to you on the radio.

NEARY: All right. Thank so much, Leon.

Mr. BINGHAM: Leon, some hard questions.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BINGHAM: What was the first one?

NEARY: OK. The first one as I - I think he asked you three questions, actually. I think he wanted to know the photo that you took of Ali in his strongest moment and then maybe in his weakest moment, and then was there a difference between Cassius Clay and Muhammad Ali?

Mr. BINGHAM: Yes. The names.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. BINGHAM: Ah, the weakest and the strongest moments. I really don't have his weakest and strongest moments. I've taken so many pictures over the years, and I really just can't bring it down to one of those...

NEARY: You do have a favorite picture at all?

Mr. BINGHAM: All of them are my favorite.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. BINGHAM: I have millions and millions of pictures of Ali. I have been shooting him since 1962.

NEARY: Well, maybe that's what - I'll let Leon go because he said he's going to listen off the phone but maybe this is what he meant which is you know, you started photographing him when he was a really young vigorous man, and of course, now we know, he's ill. And when we, you know those of us who don't know him well see photographs of him sometimes to us he looks weak, maybe that's what he meant. I don't know.

Mr. BINGHAM: Maybe so but Ali, he is 66 years old. He has this here disease called Parkinson's. He's a happy man, he does things every day. He's on the road now, he's in New York now meeting with the ex-president Bill Clinton, and he's on the road all the time and he's a happy man. He's with his lovely wife Lonnie and his mind is 100 percent. You know, to just kind of explained himself what he would like to do, but you know he's out there.

NEARY: Was there - did he become a different person after he became Muhammad Ali in any way after he changed his name to Muhammad Ali. Did just that change of the name in some way reflect a change that was going on inside of him?

Mr. BINGHAM: The name Muhammad Ali made him an international name because of the Muslim influences and of the international name Muhammad Ali brings to it.

NEARY: OK. Let's take a call now from John. John's calling from Palo Alto, California. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi. Thanks for having me. Hi, Mr. Bingham.

Mr. BINGHAM: Hi, John. How are you?

JOHN: I'm a serious amateur photographer, and I'm curious. I'm now in my '50s, my early '50s, and I'm wondering if you can start this late in a sort of semi-professional sense of doing things such as the local newspapers and such.

Mr. BINGHAM: Well, what was that last part?

JOHN: Just - if it's too late to do some freelancing work for local news business and such at this age.

Mr. BINGHAM: It is never too late, John. It's never too late. How long have you been shooting?

JOHN: I've lived in Palo Alto. Is that what you asked, I'm sorry?

NEARY: How long have you been shooting?

Mr. BINGHAM: Taking pictures.

JOHN: Oh, I'm sorry. For about 25 years. And I'm taking classes of various types. In fact, on Monday I'd start a photojournalism class with I think Peter Komitch(ph), it's the San Francisco Chronicle.

Mr. BINGHAM: Great. Well, hopefully one of this days, I assume that you are will be extra lucky and have an opportunity to get one of those wonderful photographs which I know that they are all are wonderful - in one of the newspapers and then once it's in the newspapers, it will be world famous and then John, you'll be it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

NEARY: Does that answer your question?

JOHN: Thank you for your inspiration.

NEARY: OK, great. Thanks for calling. We're talking with photographer Howard Bingham and you are listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News. And Howard, here's an email from Vicky. And she writes, do you remember taking a photograph of Cassius Clay in front of the Federal Building in New York City? My mother-in-law was in the photo, and I have been trying to find it for my husband. His mother passed away 30 years ago and he only has one photo of her. Do you remember that photo at all?

Mr. BINGHAM: No, not really. I'm sorry.

NEARY: We thought we're might be able to help you there, Vicky but...

Mr. BINGHAM: Sorry, Vicky.

NEARY: Is there a - apart from the Muhammad Ali photos, is there one that you remember taking, I know you took - I think many photographs of Nelson Mandela for example. Anybody else that really - just you were standing there thinking I can't believe I'm taking a photograph of this person that was really memorable?

Mr. BINGHAM: Elvis.

NEARY: Elvis.

Mr. BINGHAM: Yes. 1973. Elvis had a rope made for Ali in Las Vegas in Ali-Ward in the 1973 fight that he had in Las Vegas with the fight that he fought it. I had the robe on. And Elvis put on the back of the robe, the people's choice, and it was a typical Elvis robe, and it was wonderful, and I'm the only one who has the photograph of Elvis with the robe.

NEARY: Oh, that's great. What about Nelson Mandela, do you remember that, the photography session?

Mr. BINGHAM: Ali and I met Mr. Mandela in South Africa while we are - actually we first met here in Los Angeles - not here in Los Angeles but in L.A in 1991 after he get out of prison. And it was a wonderful meeting. Mr. Mandela was a big, big fan of Ali because he was an ex-boxer.

NEARY: Oh yeah, that's right.

Mr. BINGHAM: And then we went to South Africa in 1993, and Mr. Mandel and Ali and I had dinner together. It was wonderful.

NEARY: You know, I was looking of some photos that you took in Mississippi in 1968, I think you are on a...

Mr. BINGHAM: (Unintelligible) Bayou.

NEARY: Yeah, you were on assignment for - I think Time Magazine are what one of the...

Mr. BINGHAM: Life Magazine.

Mr. BINGHAM: Life Magazine, yeah.

NEARY: And you know there was one particular that struck, it was of two young girls and they had no water in their home, and they had to cross a busy road to get some water. And it just made me think you've seen some incredible changes over the years.

Mr. BINGHAM: Oh sure. People had to walk miles and miles of water, every morning and every afternoon, and it made me think because I have water and things home, running water at home after I left there. I don't want for anything shoes and food and stuff. Plenty of food, you know, they had signs of food on their walls and things that they wanted for, you know.

NEARY: Yeah.

Mr. BINGHAM: Just...

NEARY: Did you feel like your photography made a difference to that? Did doing and shoot like that make you feel like...

Mr. BINGHAM: I hope that it did, but you know, I think so.

NEARY: Yeah? What do you like to shoot now? I mean, what's your favorite thing now?

Mr. BINGHAM: I like people, and I'm mainly organizing, getting some exhibits and things together.

NEARY: Getting exhibits of your past photographs together.

Mr. BINGHAM: As a matter of fact I'm having an exhibit starting next week, starting next month at the California African-American Museum in Los Angeles. And it's on the Blank Panthers.

NEARY: Oh, interesting. Let's see we get another call in here from John(ph) who's calling from Freeport, Illinois. Hi, John.

JOHN (Caller): Hi, good day, Howard. I wanted to tell you I love your background, it encourages people that didn't get it right the first time.

Mr. BINGHAM: Thank you.

JOHN: But the question I have is I followed Muhammad Ali ever since the Olympics, and I still follow him. And all through he's really struck me as very spiritual person. Did you find him that way?

Mr. BINGHAM: Oh yes. He is now, every day he - he prays five times a day, you know. And I've always said that I just wish that everybody in the world had 10 percent of his thoughts, his interest in and love and ability to...

NEARY: Spread that love, is that what you are saying?

Mr. BINGHAM: Spread the love, yes. Because he loves people, he loves life.

NEARY: He changed your life seems like.

Mr. BINGHAM. Oh yeah. He changed a whole lot of people's lives, yes.

NEARY: All right. Thank you so much for your call, John. And Howard, I want to thank you for joining us today. It was a pleasure talking with you.

Mr. BINGHAM: Thanks a lot for have me on here. I was very, very nervous, and I hear myself in this microphone

NEARY: Don't worry about it, and you know what it's all done, so don't worry. And enjoyed your time with the Congressional Black Caucus, they are giving you an award. Howard Bingham is a photographer, and he joins us here at the Knight Studio at the Newseum. And you're listening to Talk of the Nation from NPR News, I'm Lynn Neary.

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