Clay shoot­ing

Pho­tog­ra­pher Steve Schapiro’s new book Ali show­cases his por­traits of the young Cas­sius Clay, later Muham­mad Ali. Steve Fair­clough talks to him about these mem­o­rable im­ages

Amateur Photographer - - 7days -

Steve Fair­clough talks to Steve Schapiro about his por­traits of cas­sius clay

In the early 1960s Steve Schapiro was carv­ing out a ca­reer for him­self as a pho­to­jour­nal­ist when he got an as­sign­ment from Sports

Il­lus­trated mag­a­zine to shoot a 21-year-old box­ing phe­nom­e­non, who was then simply known by his birth name Cas­sius Clay. Schapiro re­calls, ‘He was liv­ing at his par­ents’ house [in Louisville, Ken­tucky] so they sent me there to pho­to­graph him. That’s how I started pho­tograph­ing Muham­mad Ali.’

The as­sign­ment was a five-day shoot, dur­ing which Schapiro hung out with Clay in Louisville and also ac­com­pa­nied the ris­ing star on a road trip to New York City. All of this is show­cased in the new book

Ali, which in­cludes in­ti­mate im­ages of ‘ The Great­est’ at home and on the road, as well as a unique im­age of Ali with one of his fu­ture wives.

Of the shoot Schapiro re­mem­bers, ‘It just turned out to be a very photographic sit­u­a­tion. I would be with him all the time, ev­ery day. He was get­ting ready to go to Lon­don where he was go­ing to fight [Henry] Cooper and if he won that fight, which he did, he then would meet [Sonny] Lis­ton [for the World Heavy­weight Cham­pi­onship], so that was a big thing.’ De­spite be­ing com­mis­sioned by

Sports Il­lus­trated, Schapiro had few pre­cise plans for the shoot. He ad­mits, ‘I rarely have a plan go­ing into some­thing be­cause I have no idea what I’ll find when I start some­thing. I didn’t have a real plan go­ing into it and I had cer­tainly never met him be­fore, so it was like a whole, new ex­pe­ri­ence.’

Un­sur­pris­ingly, Schapiro quickly dis­cov­ered that Ali was a lo­cal hero. ‘All the kids in the neigh­bour­hood loved him and he used to ride his bi­cy­cle with them all the time. They loved to come to the house and start punch­ing at him, pre­tend­ing to be fight­ing with him. He loved the kids and he used to sit on the front steps of the house just talk­ing and kid­ding around with them.’

One of the im­ages in the book is par­tic­u­larly poignant. In Fe­bru­ary 2012, Steve Schapiro re­ceived a let­ter from Ali’s wife Lon­nie. She had been in a hair salon in Scotts­dale, Arizona, and no­ticed the book Schapiro’s He­roes, which in­cluded an im­age of her brother with Ali in 1963. Later that same week Lon­nie was at the fu­neral of Ali’s leg­endary trainer An­gelo Dundee where she met pho­tog­ra­pher Howard Bing­ham, who also wrote Ali’s bi­og­ra­phy, and asked him about Schapiro’s im­ages of Ali. Bing­ham, who died in December 2016, was able to con­firm that Schapiro had shot the pic­tures and also that he knew Schapiro and had met him re­cently in Los An­ge­les.

Schapiro ex­plains, ‘I got this mes­sage from Lon­nie Ali, in which she said I’d got­ten a pic­ture of her near Muham­mad Ali sit­ting on the steps and she never knew who the pho­tog­ra­pher was. Now she’d found out it was me and asked, “Do you have any other pic­tures of

me?” She said that at that time (in 1963) she was a six-and-ahalf-year-old girl and he [Ali] was 21-years-old.’

He con­tin­ues, ‘So I went through my con­tact sheets and I found this pic­ture ( be­low), which I never would have done any­thing with if I hadn’t got­ten her phone call or email. It’s this in­cred­i­ble pic­ture, which is in the book, of Lon­nie Ali at the age of six-and-a-half and Muham­mad [Ali] with their eyes ab­so­lutely locked on each other. There were other kids around but you just see this emo­tional con­tact be­tween them. That pic­ture is the ex­act mo­ment when they first met and when their eyes locked on each other.’

In 1986, 23 years af­ter their first meet­ing on Ali’s front porch, Lon­nie Ali be­came Ali’s fourth wife and was with him and cared for him up un­til his death in June 2016, at the age of 74.

A trip to New York

The shoot also in­volved a mem­o­rable road trip to New York City, dur­ing which Ali was sched­uled to meet his box­ing hero, the leg­endary Su­gar Ray Robin­son. Schapiro re­veals, ‘All the time while we were trav­el­ling [from Louisville to New York] he was a very quiet guy and he was very quiet at home. It wasn’t all the “I’m Muham­mad Ali! I’m here! I’m the great­est!”, all of that ( laughs).’

Ali had an ap­point­ment to meet Robin­son at Su­gar Ray’s gym but there was no sign of him when they ar­rived. ‘He was very ex­cited all the way into New York and then when we got to Su­gar Ray’s gym he be­came very quiet be­cause it was a big let down,’ notes Schapiro. ‘We fi­nally gave up and got in a car and drove to 125th Street in Har­lem; sud­denly we saw Su­gar Ray go­ing from his club into his of­fice. He then did meet with Su­gar Ray and there are pic­tures in the book of him and Su­gar Ray which I don’t think have ever been published be­fore.’

Cam­eras and films

Dur­ing the 1963 Ali shoot Schapiro was work­ing with his trusty Nikon cam­eras – in­deed he remains a Nikon shooter to this day. ‘At that point they would have been rangefinder cam­eras – the S2 and S3 – with black-and-white [Ko­dak] Tri-X film. I was prob­a­bly us­ing a 35mm and a 105mm – the two lenses I used the most. I might have used a 180mm for some­thing and I also had a 28mm.’

Schapiro con­fesses that he al­ways tended to wait for the mo­ment, rather than tak­ing a scat­ter­gun ap­proach to shoot­ing. ‘I don’t tend to “speed shoot”. I usu­ally go for one im­age, so each im­age is sep­a­rate or there are four or five of the same

‘ That pic­ture is the ex­act mo­ment when they first met and when their eyes locked on each other’

im­age. I didn’t use a mo­tor on any­thing so there’s a limit [to how much you can shoot]. But there are cer­tainly quite a num­ber of con­tact sheets.’

As to how many im­ages he cap­tured dur­ing the five-day Ali shoot Schapiro ad­mits, ‘I don’t know ex­actly but it had to be a num­ber of hun­dreds of im­ages. I shot a num­ber of rolls and there were 36 im­ages on each roll, so that’s a fair amount. I would say 1,000 or 2,000 im­ages, but I’m re­ally not sure.’

A nal meet­ing

In 2014 Schapiro was to meet Ali for a fi­nal time at a ho­tel in Chicago, ‘Lon­nie asked me to come over and he wasn’t do­ing too well at that point. He was very cog­nisant of what was hap­pen­ing but he re­ally wasn’t talk­ing. He was hav­ing good days and bad days and this wasn’t his best day.’

He re­calls, ‘We ex­changed prints but he hadn’t been sign­ing prints at all at that point. One day Lon­nie went out and when she came back he’d signed a whole bunch of prints. He re­ally liked the pic­ture of him with the Mo­nop­oly set and he re­ally liked the se­quenced pic­tures of him do­ing shadow box­ing in the liv­ing room.’

Of the new book Schapiro says, ‘I think it shows a dif­fer­ent side of Ali. It’s not a box­ing book per se. It’s a book that re­ally gives you a sense of his per­son­al­ity. You see all the pic­tures with his mother, who was very close to him at the time, and you see him with Su­gar Ray [Robin­son] – you can see how ex­cited he was and how well they got on to­gether.’

As for his re­la­tion­ship with Ali, Schapiro re­calls, ‘We got along just fine. He was a very well-bred boy. His man­ners were ex­cel­lent and there was no side to him that was in any way dif­fi­cult. He loved fried chicken and there are pic­tures in the book of his mother giv­ing him fried chicken ( be­low). There’s one in which he is “punch­ing” her and there’s even a story that when he was four-years-old he punched her and knocked out one of her teeth!’

Ali pulls a ‘mus­cle’ pose at home in Louisville, Ken­tucky

Ali rid­ing his bi­cy­cle with lo­cal kids in the streets of Louisville, Ken­tucky

Muham­mad Ali look­ing into a store win­dow while car­ry­ing his ev­er­p­re­sent Mo­nop­oly box around the town of Louisville, Ken­tucky

A se­quence of shots of Muham­mad Ali shadow box­ing in the lounge of his home in Louisville, Ken­tucky

Left: Ali pic­tured with lo­cal kids on the porch of his house in Louisville, Ken­tucky, in May 1963. The then six-year-old girl look­ing at him is his fu­ture wife Lon­nie

Steve Schapiro is a uS pho­tog­ra­pher known for his pho­to­jour­nal­ism and his work pho­tograph­ing ma­jor films and mu­si­cians. his work has been on the cov­ers of mag­a­zines such as Life, Van­ity Fair, Sportsil­lus­trated and time. Many of his iconic im­ages have been used on poster cam­paigns for films and have also been published in eight books. in 2017 Schapiro re­ceived the achieve­ment in Pho­to­jour­nal­ism award at the Lu­cie awards. to find out more go to www. steveschapiro.com

Right: The then Cas­sius Clay pic­tured at home in Louisville, Ken­tucky, with his mother Odessa Grady Clay, who is serv­ing him fried chicken

Left: Ali pic­tured com­par­ing clothes with his box­ing hero Su­gar Ray Robin­son. Ali’s brother Rah­man is on the far right of the pic­ture

The book Ali is now avail­able, published by pow­er­House Books, with text by Jack Olsen (ISBN: 978-1-57687839-2). RRP £50. To find out more go to www. pow­er­house­books.com.

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