Howard Bingham

“Floats like a butterfly, stings like a bee…this is the story of Muhammad Ali.” The heavy bass blares through the speakers in Howard Bingham’s car. “This song ‘Ali’ was written by this guy Christopher Bull…he wrote it a while ago…he met Ali in December.” It’s a catchy tune but short on lyrics. The same song has been remixed at least four times to include a reggae version and an extended mix. Howard plays the entire tape, twice, on our way to the exhibit.
It’s Saturday evening, on November 30, 1996, less than 24 hours before Howard Bingham’s exhibit opens at the Watts Labor Committee Action Center (WLCAC) in Los Angeles. The exhibit is to promote Howard’s book Muhammad Ali: A Thirty Year Journey and to celebrate his friendship with Muhammad Ali. He claims he is not nervous, and since I have only met him hours ago, I can hardly judge. While Howard has exhibited his photographs many times before, this is a special occasion as his work will be on display in his own neighborhood.
Howard Bingham was born, one of eight children to Reverend and Mrs. Willie E. Bingham, in Jackson, Mississippi in 1939. At the age of four he moved to Los Angeles with his family. They settled near Imperial Highway and Howard never strayed far. The WLCAC was developed in 1965, months before South Central Los Angeles suffered the notorious Watts riots. The WLCAC is a community center dedicated to stimulating economic change and improving the quality of life for the surrounding area. Howard has spent his lifetime documenting Muhammad Ali, but has not ignored his immediate environment. He is actively involved in the life of his community, making the WLCAC a perfect place to showcase his efforts.
Strolling through the exhibit, we come to a wall with photographs from the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta. A sequence of Muhammad Ali lighting the torch is currently being arranged. Janine and Tim Watkins, who curated the exhibit, assure Howard that the photographs will display properly. While he would rather assist them, Howard already knows there are too many cooks. The exhibit is extensive, concentrating mostly on Muhammad Ali, beginning in his 20’s through the present day, but also paying homage to Huey P. Newton, the late leader of the Black Panthers, James Brown, Micheal Jackson, and other well known figures. Black and white pictures of the stern boxer in his prime cover at least half the walls. Videos play interviews with Howard, Muhammad, and their families, and an interactive display is being assembled.

“Mom, it’s me, open up.” Howard is knocking on on the steel bars that line the front of the home. The door opens and Howard disappears. Traces of their whispers reach the car. Mrs. Bingham lives on minutes away from the WLCAC, minutes from Howard. He claims to be picking up his mail but returns to the car with three huge trays covered in foil. Howard explains the food is for his Dustin, his son, to bring back to school. I ask Howard if he will be taking pictures tomorrow. “Tomorrow,” he says “I’m going to try and relax.” He slices up some of his mothers sweet potato pie for us to sample on the way home.

I got my chance to meet Mrs. Willie E. Bingham at the opening. She is smaller than Howard in size, but as endearing. At 78 she lives alone, her husband died over 11 years ago. “Howard was always a good boy,” she shares. Rumor has it that she still irons Howard’s shirts, but she won’t confess.

The opening is scheduled begin at 3:00pm on Sunday. At 2:30pm, Howard is roaming through the picture gallery, pausing to examine his own work and to listen to his own voice. He is dressed in a Hawaiian short sleeve shirt and chino pants, “Like the way I’m dressed?” he jests, “This is what I am wearing.” Once he has tended to last minute details, Howard heads home to shower and change at exactly 3:00pm, leaving behind arriving press and guests. The exhibit is still receiving it’s final touches.

People crowd into the WLCAC assembly hall to get a good position for the pending speeches. Press from at least six different publications are present, including the Los Angeles Times. In fact, the Los Angeles Times had an unusual amount of their photography staff at hand. As it turns out, not all of them are there to cover the story. Most have come to view the exhibit and support Howard. “Even his peers respect him,” states Camille Cosby “and they can be very competitive.” One of Howard’s closest friends and wife of Bill Cosby, Camille keeps a close eye on Howard’s career. At exactly 4:00pm, whispers amongst the crowd escalate and the speech givers abort their efforts. Muhammad Ali and Howard Bingham arrive in the black towncar. Their presence causes a raucous of camera flashes and reporters questions. They slowly file into the hall and Ali stops to kiss a small child. Howard is making an entrance.
Janine Watkins introduces Howard, “We are going to name our photo school, for our students, Howard L. Bingham. We want his work to continue and we want our children to understand what it means to be behind the camera, to capture history for all the times.” Howard beams into the audience. “Howard has been a friend of the organization WLCAC for about 31 years,” Tim Watkins explains. “We are proud to honor him in this way, particularly because he has never asked for anything, but has always come and photographed events at the organization and been benevolent in the way he has contributed.

It’s truly comical trying to interview Howard in his home. There are photographs covering the living room. They are stored haphazardly in piles of books Howard has never read. Leafing through a stack on the mantle there are shots of Muhammad Ali and Howard with the Pope, Fidel Castro, President Bill Clinton, Vice President Gore, and Don Shula…and this isn’t even where he keeps his pictures. “Some of these things here are Ali’s. I have to pack them up and send them to his house.”

Howard married Carolyn Turner with whom he has two sons, Dustin and Damon. Their marriage collapsed in 1986. “I’m on the road a lot and my sons, one of my sons is here with me all the time. He’s at law school now… But I don’t like coming home to this mess…anyway, it’s mine.” After making a thousand excuses for his living quarters, we begin the interview. Then the phone begins to ring. “Most of the Time when I come home I sit in this chair or the other chair and get on the phone.” In his home he has three phone lines with call waiting and one fax line. It is accurate to say that the phone never stops ringing and by the time we get on a topic, another call comes in. I try to persuade him not to answer the phone, but he is convinced that any and every call is as important as our interview. Daily, he receives calls from Lonnie (Mrs. Muhammad) Ali and Camille (Mrs. Bill) Cosby, and often from producers, directors, and other famous figures. During the day I spent at Howard’s home the phone rang over 50 times; calls came in regarding the opening at the WLCAC, offers to exhibit abroad, and requests for he and Muhammad Ali to make appearances.
“I have been a very fortunate individual being in this field where I don’t know as much as a lot of people do. You know, I have never had a formal education in photography, but, you know, it’s on the job training.” Modest as he may be for the status he achieved in his field, Howard Bingham did fail his first photography course while at Compton College. Much to his professors chagrin, he pursued a career in the industry by taking an apprenticeship with the Los Angeles Sentinel, one of the country’s largest black newspapers. he was hired as a staff photographer after one month. In 1962, Howard was assigned to cover Muhammad Ali, then Cassius Clay, who was in town to promote a fight. Bingham covered the press conference
and left. A few hours later he bumped into Clay and his brother and offered to show them around Los Angeles. A lifetime of friendship grew out of that meeting. “I’ve been very fortunate to be in the right place at the right time” Bingham declares. After 18 months with the paper, he was fired for moonlighting and has since toured the world with Muhammad Ali documenting the boxer’s career and life.
“That was the best thing that ever happened to me…This has been the only job I have ever had. I know a lot of other photographers who moonlight working at the post office, etc. just to make it work. But, I have been fortunate.” Bingham’s close relationship with Ali gave him proximity to photograph the family in intimate settings. “He’s so much part of this family it’s unobtrusive,” Lonnie Ali explains “He sort of chronicles things that I wouldn’t and I would regret later.” Bingham could sell his pictures and make a fortune, but the thought never enters his mind. It’s his friendship with Ali that matters to him, not Ali’s notoriety. According to Lonnie Ali, “His primary objective is always Muhammad.”Later, on our way to dinner, Bingham and Ali expose their well known comical personas. While riding in the car, Ali dozes off. Bingham begins to make an ordeal about him falling asleep. “Try and wake him up,” he coaxes Tom Hauser, (Ali’s close friend and biographer). “If he falls into a deep sleep he’ll think he’s back in the ring with Frazier.” Punches start flying and Ali growls. Bingham tries to protect himself from the throws. Suddenly, Ali’s eyes open as if in a trance and he reaches behind the seat as if to punch me. Squirming in my seat, I release a whimper only to open my eyes and see Ali’s wide grin in my face. Ali, Bingham, and Tom chuckle all the way to the restaurant recalling many other practical jokes they have played.
“It was 1965 and all the magazines in the world called me…they knew me because of Ali.” Riots began to break out in Los Angeles and being from the area, Howard was one of the first photographers contacted. He worked for several magazines including Time, Sports Illustrated, Look, People, Newsweek, and Ebony, but Life magazine contracted him to cover the riot circuit all over the country. “They (Life) called all of their other photographers in the area out, including their big names. The nest week, they wound up using all of my pictures. That’s what got me started.” Life hired Howard for the summer of 1966 as a ‘riot photographer.’ Jokingly he states, “have riot will travel,” but that summer turned into a 5 year stint on retainer with the magazine. The turbulent tour ended abruptly in 1967 when Howard flew to Detroit to cover riot activity with a writer, Initially, he was harassed by a police officer because of his race. The police and National Guard then invaded the motel where Howard was staying, searching for blacks. Luckily, the motel employee on duty had not seen Howard reenter the motel. “I was on the floor, on the phone with my mother and my boss from Life magazine…saying hey, if anything happens to me, this is how it went down.” Howard woke the next morning and flew home. That was the end of riot days.
The doorbell rings and Howard greets a delivery person who offers him chicken soup that he had not ordered. “Courtesy of Gramercy Pictures, Mr. Bingham.” Howard is dialing even before the door shuts. “Thank you, thank you, thank you. You all are crazy.” He has been feeling a bit under the weather and some associates thought it would be nice to send him lunch. “I’m here being interviewed…they are recording everything I say…”Bingham spent most of his Time on the road with Ali. However, he has managed time to have an incredible journey of his own. Besides the mid-sixties riots, he has been the personal photographer for Camille and Bill Cosby, covered the 1968 Democratic Convention, and even testified on the O.J. trial. “I was on a flight with OJ to Chicago… I talked to him.” Howard was Chicago bound to meet up with Muhammad Ali. Even though the flight did not seem significant at the time, Bingham would be asked to recall his encounter with OJ at the trial almost a year later. He has actually known OJ since 1968, and covered him during his days as a football star. As far as the verdict goes; “I don’t know if he did it…I wasn’t there.”

Johnnie Cochran paces as he continues the questioning:
Johnnie Cochran: “Howard Bingham sir, what is you occupation?”
Howard replies: “I am a photographer.”
Johnnie Cochran: “Are you a world renowned photographer?”
Howard replies: “The world’s greatest.”
The courtroom burst into laughter.

But, the testimony becomes irrelevant as Howard grins and reveals the true nature of the trial experience: “I was sitting in the court the week after I testified. At recess,
I was outside and the judge (Ito) sent for me. He said he had seen and heard of me before and just wanted to meet me. So, I gave him a book and also books for the jurors.” Eventually, Marsha Clark asked for a book too. In fact, in the trial video, she and Christopher Darden peruse the photographs while Howard testifies. “I had everybody laughing. I was the witness everybody liked.” Lonnie Ali remembers: “When Johnnie Cochran was giving his summary, Howard and I were on the phone. He was so excited to be mentioned that he hung up on me.”
You would think that Howard is used to the Limelight, but in reality the stage is new to him. He has sent a lot of time with people who are famous, but within the past five years, he himself has become a celebrity. “He’s developing his own celebrity status. It is well deserved and long overdue. It would have happened a long time ago if he had struck out on his own,” Lonnie Ali commented. The book helped with his emergence, and now he is reaping some benefits. Recently, Nikon invited Howard to be a guest at their booth and to display his work at the upcoming Photo Marketing Association trade show in New Orleans and The Board of American Society of photographers is honoring him at the PPA show in Las Vegas. “It will never change Howard,” Lonnie Ali is confident.
Howard has faced his share of animosity within the industry. In 1969, Bill Cosby asked Howard to be the still photographer on the set of “The Bill Cosby Show.” At that time, only white males were allowed as members in to the motion picture and television photographer’s union. “It wasn’t a thing where blacks couldn’t join,” Howard explained “it’s just that no one had challenged it before.” Still, Bill Cosby insisted Howard come to the set everyday. This meant that Howard and another photographer were both paid while only Howard took pictures. The rule in the union was that after 30 days on the set, Howard would be eligible for union membership. Once in the union, he was considered in the lowest rank. Unfortunately, union rules mandated a higher ranking photographer be on the set. Again, Cosby insisted Howard Bingham attend the set everyday. The show had to pay for both Howard and a higher ranking photographer, but Cosby only allowed Howard to take the photographs.A crowded tour bus is headed to two urban Los Angeles high schools. Muhammad Ali, Lonnie Ali, and Thomas Hauser will all make presentations to high school children regarding the new book, Healing, A Journal of Tolerance and Understanding. The collaborative effort by Muhammad Ali and Thomas Hauser is a small book filled with thoughtful quotes and space to write one’s own views. It promotes racial harmony, tolerance, and understanding. Thomas Hauser has also recently written Muhammad Ali In Perspective which includes principal photography by Howard Bingham.
The tour is called “Reaching Beyond the Ring” and is being sponsored by HBO. By speaking out to younger generations on the tour, the Ali’s and Thomas Hauser hope to get a message across of tolerance heard.Also making presentations are Roy Jones, Jr., Jim Lampley, and members of the school boards. Howard is there to photograph the event, along with 40 other press photographers, videographers, and writers. The difference among them is Howard is an invited guest. He sits on stage next to the Ali’s and runs to take a picture when he needs to. He is amazing to watch at work as he assists both Lonnie and Muhammad Ali. He snaps memorable shots and hides in the shadows while Ali’s take their bows. At one moment, Lonnie asks Howard to hold a bouquet of flowers while she speaks. Howard diligently clutches the bouquet as he scrambles to take pictures. He never once lets the flowers out of his hands.

Howard Bingham uses mostly Nikon cameras. He shoots with a Nikon N90S and NIkon F3 and uses Hassalblad and Mamiya equipment to shoot larger formats. With his Nikon cameras, Howard uses Nikon lenses, including a 28-85mm. Typically he uses a SB 25 flash. He likes to shoot Kodak film, especially Ektachrome, with which he cam develop either color or black and white prints.

It’s time to select photographs for the article, and Howard is experiencing deja vu. “For the book I had a friend, George Washington, who was an editor at Sports Illustrated. I was telling him to choose this one and that one, he was like no no no… he helped me through this mess. I was mainly looking to put Ali in with all these celebrities which was not so good.” Apparently, it was not the direction George Washington and other editors had in mind: “They wanted me to show something else and I like what happened.”There is a specific room in Bingham’s home just to store and look through photographs and files. The room is small and edged with cabinets. The two largest only store contact sheets of Muhammad Ali. Each event has a folder, but it’s a “Bingham system” without logic to anyone else. The next largest cabinet houses the Bill Cosby files. The pictures detail Mr. Cosby’s television shows and movies, and more recently his stint for Kodak. Beyond the Ali and Cosby cabinets are political officials, musicians, and work done for Life and other magazines. “Pick a topic,” Howard chides, “any topic, I must have something on it.”

History is alive in Howard’s files, but they are complicated and hard to decipher. “I would really like someone from Kodak, or somewhere, to help to archive this room.”

As usual, Howard is doing five different things at once. He graciously attempts to assist with the photo search, but insists on taking phone calls and responding to others needs as well. He constantly darts in and out of the room, smile on his face, carrying on two or three conversations at one time.

There is an entire file documenting the Black Panthers, a militant black organization that fought for civil rights in the 1960’s. While at Life, Howard worked on a behind the scenes feature focusing on the Black Panthers. “I photographed Huey (Heuy P. Newton, the late leader of the Black Panthers) when he was in jail. This was taken right before the trial.” Howard’s services were requested by Eldridge Cleaver, the Minister of Information for the Black Panthers, “He said the only person who could do this would be me. And so, Life called me. They knew of me from Ali.” Howard and a Life writer were given complete access to the Panthers headquarters and plans. “They wanted to get their story out.” Ironically, Life never published the article, but the pictures remain as a vivd tale from the past. “I’m actually doing a Black Panther Exhibition in Oakland in February. That’s where they were founded.”To name all of the projects Howard Bingham has contributed to would take an entire book. He has written two introductions to photography books, shot stills on movie sets, and has recently purchased the rights to two novels with the potential to turn them into movies. He is constantly being recognized for his excellence in the field and for his value as a friend and a confidant. Just a few weeks ago when Bryant Gumble was leaving the Today Show, Howard was called onto the set. You may have never seen him before, but now when you review the Ali fights or watch any television show where Ali is a guest, look for Howard’s face. Howard Bingham may stand behind the scenes, but he is never in the shadows.
I think Lonnie Ali put it best when she said “99.9 percent of the people Howard Bingham meets like him instantly. In fact, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t like Howard Bingham. (In the fact of this comment, Howard jests: “Just call my ex-wife.”) But due to his good nature, easy company, and lively spirit, he is a true joy to be around. Not to mention his high moral standards: “Howard does not take advantage of people. He does not propel himself at the expense of others,” states Camille Cosby. That is what has endeared him to the Cosby family as well as many other celebrities. He loves his work and people in general. “I like people. I like dealing with them. I like to be in the middle when I can make a difference. I hear a lot of people’s problems, I don’t ask for it, but they know I won’t tell anyone else. I’m a good listener.” Most people feel comfortable around Howard Bingham, even people like me.
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