Gordon Parks, American (1912–2006). Muhammad Ali Interviewed by Reporters, London, England, 1966. Gelatin silver print, 11 x 14 inches. (courtesy of and copyright the Gordon Parks Foundation)
Gordon Parks was a celebrated African-American photographer who came to fame through his work for the legendary “Life” magazine, and who enjoyed success as director of films including the semiautobiographical but little-seen “The Learning Tree” (1969) and the gritty and groundbreaking “Shaft” (1971).
As such, any exhibition of his photographs would certainly be of significant value. But when Kansas native Parks focused his camera on one of the greatest athletes in history, he captured priceless moments in time.
Stunning black-and-white shots of that athlete — legendary boxer, outspoken social activist and pop-culture icon Muhammad Ali — are on display in “Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali The Image of a Champion 1966 | 1970” at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art.
Organized by the museum in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation, the exhibition features more than 50 photographs that Parks took of Ali while on assignment for “Life” in 1966 and 1970.
“Most of the photographs that (Parks) made were not actually published at the time,” said April M. Watson, curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins and curator of the exhibition. Nonetheless, Parks captured a crucial period in Ali’s public life.
In 1966, Ali was stripped of his boxing titles after refusing to be drafted into the military, citing his religious beliefs and opposition to the Vietnam War. That stance earned him the admiration of the counterculture and antiwar and civil rights activists.
“My thesis for the show is that Parks really leveraged his own hard-won influence at ‘Life’ magazine, whose readership was largely white and middle-class, to symbolically lend a helping hand to Ali — at a time when he really was quite controversial,” Watson said. Ali’s conviction for draft evasion was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1971.
“Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali” showcases an auspicious alignment between two major African-American cultural figures while also shining a spotlight on an artist with regional roots. Parks was born in Fort Scott, Kansas, about 90 miles south of Kansas City, Missouri.
“We didn’t have a whole lot of Parks material to work from in our permanent collection, and so working with the foundation seemed like a wonderful opportunity,” Watson said. Some of the photos in the exhibition were previously seen in the foundation’s “American Champion” portfolio.
Perhaps most intriguingly, the exhibition reveals an Ali not often caught on camera, Watson said.
“In the portraits that Parks made, and in the access that he had to Ali, you really start to see just how much trust the two men had for one another,” she said.
Because of that connection, Parks “was able to break through all of Ali’s bravado, and mugging for the camera, to be able to create some very poignant, intimate portraits that get at Ali’s strength and charisma, but also moments of vulnerability and introspection.”
“Gordon Parks X Muhammad Ali The Image of a Champion 1966 | 1970” continues through July 5 at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, 4525 Oak. St. For more information, www.nelson-atkins.org.