First of all a confession: I am in quarantine. In the 2020 version of instant karma, the joy of a holiday in France has meant being locked down once again at home. So it has been impossible for me to get out to see any shows since I got back and for two weeks I am limited to the online experience that has become the default this year. So be it.
Alison Jacques showed a selection of photographs by Gordon Parks at Frieze Masters last year. Her two successive exhibitions of his work at her gallery this summer are the first solo exhibitions of his work in the UK for 25 years. Part Two, which opened on Tuesday, focuses exclusively on his portraits of Muhammad Ali.
The title of the book published last year by Steidl, Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali, aptly expresses the bringing together of two men who are now legendary in their respective fields. When Parks first met Ali, the boxer greeted him with the words: “They tell me you’re the greatest.”
Parks was commissioned by Life Magazine on two occasions to create features on Ali. The first time, in 1966, Parks’ piece was titled The Redemption of the Champion. Ali was 24 and Parks 54 at the time. The famous writer, photographer and social activist adopted an at-times fatherly tone in his copy, attempting to understand Ali by comparing him to his own son. He begins the piece by describing Ali’s reputation as “in tatters” at that time. He is booed everywhere he goes in the US – considered a traitor by many for converting to Islam and changing his name from Cassius Clay, and for vociferously refusing to be drafted into the war in Vietnam.
Parks follows Ali from Miami all the way to London, for the fight against Henry Cooper. It is rather extraordinary to read the article now, and to see how Ali’s reception by an admiring London public contrasted so sharply with his experience at home. The Daily Telegraph referred to Ali as “a champion of courtesy and charm.” Throughout the weeks they were together in 1966, Parks challenged Ali on his abrasive public persona, his braggadocio and combative statements about racial inequality. His photographs reveal his growing sympathy for the private man – who trains relentlessly, who lives clean and thinks deeply about the racial injustice of his own country. They quickly became close friends, Ali seeking and trusting the advice of the older Parks.
What is remarkable in the story of these two men’s friendship is the way both of them shift and evolve in the course of it. Parks, admitting straight away that he was sceptical about the firebrand Ali; Ali himself consciously adapting his own thinking and behaviour as his career progresses: “When I was campaigning for the championship I said things and did things not becoming of a champion. But I’m a champion now. And today I’m measuring my words, I’m measuring my deeds. I’m measuring my thoughts.”
Parks’ record of their time together is intimate and telling. There is the photograph of the anonymous figure training in the chill early morning mists of Hyde Park. Tiny against the looming trees, it speaks long about the many unglamorous hours required to harden muscle and sinew to match readiness. A close-up of bruised and grazed knuckles is more explicit. The close-cropped photograph against a black background of the boxer’s face and shoulders heavily beaded with perspiration after a training session is iconic now. Another shot of Ali, hands in pockets, leaning on the bannister in an elegant interior reminds one of Parks’ experience as a fashion photographer. Ali appears to be listening intently to something and one is struck by his open expression, his youthful tenderness. In many ways the images of the fight with Cooper are the least interesting.
In 1970, when Parks was commissioned for the second time to photograph Ali, he was emerging from a four-year exclusion from boxing, a punishment for having refused the draft. Ali was preparing to fight Joe Frazier, hoping to regain his title as Heavyweight Champion of the World. There is a shot that shows him on a photo call, surrounded by schoolchildren holding up their autographed photographs. The man that looks into the lens is straight-faced, betraying a moment of reflection perhaps, in an otherwise faultless performance of his public persona.
Here in the UK we perhaps think we know the legendary Ali too well, but we most certainly know Gordon Parks too little. This exhibition illuminates both of these figures in ways that add depth and nuance to their legacy.
Alison Jacques Gallery, 16-18 Berners Street, London W1T 3LN. Open Tuesday-Saturday 11.00-17.00. Exhibition continues until 1 October 2020. www.alisonjacquesgallery.com