Howard L. Bingham, Muhammad Ali’s Longtime Photographer, Dies at 77

Howard L. Bingham, a photographer who took an estimated one million pictures of Muhammad Ali over more than 50 years while becoming one of the boxer’s closest friends, died on Thursday in Marina del Rey, Calif. He was 77.

Harlan Werner, his friend and agent, confirmed the death but did not specify the cause.

In 1962, Mr. Bingham was working for The Los Angeles Sentinel, an African-American newspaper, when he met Ali at a news conference to announce a coming fight. Mr. Bingham took a few shots of the brash, rising boxer and left.

But afterward he spotted Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, and his brother, Rudy, on a street corner.

“I asked them if they wanted a ride someplace because it looked like they were waiting for a bus, and they said no,” Mr. Bingham said in “Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times” (1991), an oral biography by Thomas Hauser. “They were just watching the girls go by. So I asked if they’d like to take a ride with me.”

They joined Mr. Bingham on his errands and, he recalled, “we hit it off good.”

That encounter led to many more as Mr. Bingham balanced his time with Ali — up to 100 days a year, he estimated — with his work as a freelance photographer. His privileged access let him do more than other photographers assigned to cover Ali’s fights and training camps.

Mr. Bingham did not ignore the bouts, but his work was especially valuable for showing Ali away from the ring: preaching or sleeping; playing with his children or with Elvis Presley; posing with black leaders like Malcolm X and James Meredith.

“Ali never met a camera he didn’t like,” Jerry Izenberg, a longtime sports columnist for The Star-Ledger of Newark, said in an interview this week. “But by being there, in hotel rooms and on streets with Ali, Howard saw him in unguarded moments and put together a portfolio that reveals the man Ali really was. His legacy, his pictures, are a necessary piece of the Ali puzzle.”

Bingham, left, with Ali, then known as Cassius Clay, as they made a telephone call in 1963. Bingham met the boxer a year earlier on an assignment for The Los Angeles Sentinel.CreditJames Drake/The LIFE Images Collection, via Getty Images

Howard Lenoid Bingham was born on May 29, 1939, in Jackson, Miss., one of eight children of the Rev. Willie E. Bingham Jr., a minister and baggage handler, and Willie Emmaline Bingham, who moved their family to Los Angeles when Howard was a child. He attended Compton Community College there and, although he failed a photography class, was hired by The Sentinel. He had, he recalled, a rocky start.

“I went off on jobs, came back with underexposed film, blurred film, no film — and I always had an excuse for what went wrong,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1994.

He was fired after 18 months for spending too much time on his own photographing weddings and other events. The dismissal freed him to spend more time with Ali and build his freelance clientele. He gained a reputation for photographing riots in various cities for Life magazine and covered the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968.

A monthslong assignment to cover the Black Panthers for Life was spiked — Mr. Bingham would say the images he captured “scared” the magazine — but he repurposed them for a 2009 book, “Howard L. Bingham’s Black Panthers 1968.”

He also worked for Time, Ebony, Newsweek and Sports Illustrated and was reported to have been the first black photographer in the Hollywood cinematographers’ union after Bill Cosby demanded that he be on the set of his first sitcom, “The Bill Cosby Show,” in 1969.

Still, Mr. Bingham was known mainly for his friendship with Ali, who died in June after a long struggle with Parkinson’s disease. Mr. Bingham’s calm demeanor allowed him to survive many changes in Ali’s world, including four wives, his conversion to Islam, the stripping of his heavyweight title when he refused military service and his struggles with Parkinson’s disease. He served as a gatekeeper for Ali at times, fielding requests for his services, most notably when Olympics officials wanted him to light the caldron at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.

And, Mr. Bingham has said, he believed he could be honest with Ali because he took no money from him.

“He was, I think, the kindest, most generous and decent human being in that whole Ali entourage,” Robert Lipsyte, the former New York Times sports reporter and columnist who covered many of Ali’s early fights, said in an interview this week. “He really kept him on the straight and narrow. He had this beautiful innocence about him. And a very difficult stammer that made him hard to understand.”

He never became a familiar name like Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, or his rambunctious cornerman, Drew Bundini Brown. So it was appropriate that when Sports Illustrated published a profile of Mr. Bingham in 1998, its cover showed a picture of him and Ali with the headline “Who’s That Guy With Howard Bingham?”

Three years later, in the film “Ali,” starring Will Smith, Mr. Bingham was played by Jeffrey Wright.

Mr. Bingham, who was divorced, is survived by a son, Dustin, and a granddaughter. Another son, Damon, died this year.

Until recently, Mr. Bingham kept his enormous photographic archive — of Ali and everyone else — in file cabinets in his modest Los Angeles house. They are now stored in a climate-controlled facility that enhances their preservation.

Mr. Bingham was wary of appearing to cash in on his friendship with Ali. But in 1993, he published a book of pictures, “Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey,” in which he wrote:

“I have had the greatest of all blessings because my eye and my camera became the world’s window to this magnificent life.”

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