Bingham, Howard L. 1939–

views updated

Bingham, Howard L. 1939–

PERSONAL: Born May 29, 1939, in Jackson, MI; son of Willie Everrett (a minister and baggage handler) and Emmaline (a homemaker) Bingham; married Carolyn L. Turner, May 4, 1972 (divorced); children: Damon Howard, Dustin Lenoid. Education: Attended Compton Junior College, 1956–58. Religion: Protestant.

ADDRESSES: Office—P.O. Box 5385, Gardena, CA. E-mail[email protected]

CAREER: Photographer and writer. Los Angeles Sentinel, Los Angeles, CA, photographer, early 1960s; freelance photographer, 1960s–; personal photographer of heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali; executive producer of Ali, Sony Pictures, 2001. Exhibitions: Mound Bayou: Mississippi, 2000; Detroit Focus 2000; Main Event: The Ali/Foreman Extravaganza through the Lens of Howard L. Bingham, Smithsonian, Washington, DC, 2002; and online exhibitions at,, and

AWARDS, HONORS: International Award, American Society of Photographers/Professional Photographers of America, 1997; named Photographer of the Year, Photographic Marketing Distribution Association, 1997; Kodak Vision Award; an endowment was established by the Eastman Kodak Company to the Rochester Institute of Technology in Bingham's name for financial aid to minority students studying photography.


Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey, introductions by Muhammad and Lonnie Ali and others, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.

(With Max Wallace) Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America, M. Evans (New York, NY), 2000.

(With others) Ali: The Movie and the Man, Newmarket Press (New York, NY), 2001.

Contributor of photography to periodicals, including Life, Time, Sports Illustrated, Look, People, Newsweek, and Ebony.

SIDELIGHTS: Howard L. Bingham is most noted for his four-decade friendship with world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and for the estimated million photographs he has taken of the boxer. Many of these photographs depict Ali with political figures and celebrities, including Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, Adam Clayton Powell, Nelson Mandela, Jimmy Carter, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon B. Johnson, Gerald Ford, Bill Clinton, Billy Graham, Michael Jackson, Johnny Cash, the Beatles, James Brown, Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke, James Earle Jones, and Madonna, as well as with boxing greats such as Ray Robinson and Joe Louis.

Bingham was born in Mississippi and moved to Los Angeles with his family when he was four years old. In spite of the "F" grade he received for a photography course he took in junior college, he left school and became an apprentice photographer at the Los Angeles Sentinel, a black newspaper where he received on-the-job training but minimal pay. Bingham was fired for moonlighting after eighteen months, but by then, he had already made the contact that would give him his life's direction.

While covering a boxing match in 1962, Bingham met one of the contenders, an unknown named Cassius Marcellus Clay. Bingham gave Clay and his brother, Rudolph Valentino Clay, a tour of Los Angeles, and this began a friendship that would survive years of ups and downs, marriages, and other life changes. Although many thought Bingham to be on the boxer's payroll, he was not; he took his photographs due to his own pleasure in documenting Ali's life. Bingham accompanied Ali to fights, personal appearances, and on diplomatic trips, including those to Africa and Bangladesh. The first three decades of their friendship is recalled in Bingham's Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey.

Bingham not only documents Ali's life in photos, he also has written with Max Wallace Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America. In early 1964, Clay converted to Islam, which prohibits fighting in combat, and took the name Muhammad Ali. The event was noted by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) director J. Edgar Hoover, who arranged to have the fighter immediately drafted into the U.S. Army. Ali had previously failed the mental aptitude test, but as the monthly draft numbers increased, the passing mark was lowered by half, making him eligible. Ali had little understanding of the Vietnam conflict, but his attorney requested a deferment from the Louisville, Kentucky draft board on the grounds that without Ali's income, his family would be destitute. Soon Ali became the focus of intense scrutiny for his antiwar position, and was ultimately sentenced to five years in prison.

As the mid-twentieth century roiled with conflict, Bingham covered the peace protests, civil rights marches, the Watts riots in 1965, and the chaotic Democratic convention in Chicago in 1968. He earned the trust of a wide array of subjects, including the Black Panthers, who allowed him to photograph their weapons cache, knowing that he would not reveal their location.

A 1969 Life photo essay Bingham shot with writer Dick Hall has been compared to the celebrated collaboration Let Us Now Praise Famous Men by James Agee and Walker Evans. Bingham's photographs of life in Mound Bayou, Mississippi were taken over five weeks on behalf of a Southern poverty program run by the Preventative Medicine Department of Tufts University in Boston, Massachusetts. The all-black town was founded in 1887 by former slaves, and is in one of the poorest counties in the country. Bingham's photographs of small children hauling water from a communal pump speak for themselves.

While photographing Ali, Bingham met actor Bill Cosby, who in 1969 invited him to shoot some stills for his television show. Cosby broke the color barrier in doing so, and as Bingham worked, a white union still photographer sat nearby. When Bingham was named Photographer of the Year in 1997, he dedicated the award to Cosby's son, Ennis, who had been murdered just months earlier. Bingham had felt a special affection for Ennis, a young man who, like Bingham with his stutter, was handicapped by his dyslexia. When Ennis died, Bingham helped with transportation of his body from Los Angeles to Massachusetts, where the boy was to be buried. Over the years, Bingham and the Cosby family, which he has captured in still photographs, have remained close.

Seemingly no stranger to controversy, Bingham was called to testify in the 1995 murder trial of black athlete O. J. Simpson. While on the stand, defense attorney Johnnie Cochrane asked him, "aren't you known as a world-renowned photographer?" To which Bingham replied, "no, I'm the greatest," the phrase with which Ali has always described himself. Daily News reporter Reed Johnson wrote that "while some might question the good taste of fishing for laughs at a double-homicide trial, well, that in a nutshell is Howard L. Bingham: class cutup, lifelong Watts resident, father of two, sports enthusiast par excellence, first-rate photojournalist (if arguably not the 'world's greatest'), and a man who seemingly has never met a stranger. He is, quite possibly, the most gentle and disarming human being you'll ever meet."

Although crippled by Parkinson's Disease, Ali carried the Olympic torch to the cauldron in the 1996 Olympics, held in Atlanta, Georgia, and it was Bingham who handled the details. Bingham was also executive producer of the film Ali, in which Jeffrey Wright plays Bingham and a bulked-up Will Smith plays the champion. The film portrays Ali over the ten years beginning 1964, when he won the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, to 1974, when he regained it by defeating George Foreman in the bout held in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and dubbed the "Rumble in the Jungle." Bingham is also portrayed in the 1997 documentary When We Were Kings, also about the Zaire match.

Bingham's photographs of the famous match between thirty-two-year-old Ali and twenty-two-year-old Foreman were presented in an exhibit at the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum and Center for African American History and Culture. They include many of Ali with celebrities who flew to Africa to support him, and the young Don King who promoted the fight.

Bingham continues to work with Ali, as well as being involved with documentary and commercial work and mentoring young blacks hopeful of entering the film industry.



Bingham, Howard L., Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey, introductions by Muhammad and Lonnie Ali and others, Simon & Schuster (New York, NY), 1993.


Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), February 5, 1997, Reed Johnson, "The Champ and the Shutterbug," p. L10.

Independent (London, England), October 6, 2001, Howard L. Bingham, "The American Who Wouldn't Go to War," p. 1.

Library Journal, March 1, 2000, Jim G. Burns, review of Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America, p. 100.

Los Angeles Times, February 9, 2000, Duane Noriyuki, "Noted Photographer Howard Bingham Based His Many Years of Documenting Muhammad Ali's Life Not on the Boxer's Celebrity, but on Their Personal Bond," p. E1.

New York Times Book Review, November 21, 1993, David Kelly, review of Muhammad Ali, p. 24.

Petersen's Photographic, March, 1998, Kristien Brada, "Howard Bingham: Chronicles of a Celebrated Boxer," p. 42.

Sports Illustrated, July 13, 1998, Frank Deford, "The Best of Friends," p. 82.


Howard Bingham Home Page, (December 7, 2003).