Famed Life Magazine photographer Gordon Parks had a few things in common with legendary boxer Muhammad Ali. Both were black men who reached the top of their respective fields during the Civil Rights era, using their sizable platform to push for social change.
It’s perhaps no surprise then that the two would strike up a friendship, resulting in a wide range of photographs taken by Parks. Some of those photos are on display this summer in the exhibit “American Champion” at the Gordon Parks Foundation gallery in Pleasantville.
The exhibit, which opened last week and runs through September, includes several never-before-published photographs of Ali taken while training for fights that occurred in 1966 and 1970. Parks first photographed Ali training in Miami in 1966, and accompanied him to London for a fight. Four years later, Parks followed him during his bid to take back the heavyweight title from Joe Frazier culminating in the first of their three matches.
The new exhibit opened just days after Ali died on June 3 after a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. The champ’s death was followed by a week of memorials and retrospectives leading up to his June 10 funeral in Louisville.
Assistant curator Amanda Smith said the timing of the exhibit was purely coincidental. Smith said the foundation got a call from The New York Times as the exhibit was being put up last Friday just before Ali died looking to use some of Parks’ famous photos of the champ.
“It was just a strange coincidence,” Smith said. “Gordon Parks was one of the more well-known photographers of Ali, and the Times specifically requested a specific picture, (Muhammad Ali, Miami, Florida from 1966) on the ready for when they had to do his obituary.”
Smith said there had been a steady burst of visitors in the first few days the exhibit was open, thanks to heavy media coverage of Ali’s death and funeral. Many of the pictures are of a more candid variety, showing Ali outside the ring in more relaxed settings, and were considered by some to have helped soften the controversial boxer’s image after his conversion to Islam and his boycott of the draft during the Vietnam War draft.
“We kind of had it in the back of our heads that this might happen, but we were kind of bombarded, but we’re happy that we’re able to showcase all these pictures because they really give a different view of Ali, they all feel personal,” Smith said. “That’s because they were friends from 1966 until the end of Gordon’s life. They kept in contact.”
Parks, who died in 2006, was best known for his photographic essays for Life magazine from the 1940s through the 1970s. Many of his best-known works followed African-Americans in their everyday lives during the Civil Rights era and the economic and social struggles they endured.
Parks was also a musician and writer, and directed the 1971 film classic “Shaft” and several other major motion pictures for television and the big screen. Parks lived in Greenburgh from the 1940s through much of the 1970s.
The Gordon Parks Foundation is located at 48 Wheeler St. in Pleasantville. It is open Monday through Thursday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Fridays from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information, visit www.gordonparksfoundation.org.