His camera has captured memorable photographs of the civil rights and history defining movements, and some of the most iconic people of our time. Photographer Howard Bingham, 69, has practically seen it all.
Bingham is most internationally known and recognized for his candid portraits of his good friend Muhammad Ali–photographs that span a friendship of 40 years. Most are not aware that Bingham is a self-taught photographer.
The son of a minister and Pullman porter for the U.S. railroad, Bingham, who was born in Jackson, Mississippi, and grew up in Watts, reveals that his love of photography was sparked as a teen after spying the bevy of girls congregating at his neighbor’s house.
“My neighbors were photographers and there were always these beautiful girls hanging around their house,” Bingham recalls. “I knew the ladies were over there getting their pictures taken. Right then and there I said, ‘Hey–I like that.”
Bingham decided to take a course in photography at Compton Community College but received an “F” in the class. To add insult to injury, he was kicked out of school because of poor grades.
But the photo bug had bitten Bingham hard and he was determined to pursue his love of photography. He began hounding the staff photographer at a local newspaper. “I knocked on his dark room door every day for a week,” recalls Bingham. “After about five days, he said, ‘Come on in, but don’t touch anything.’ I sort of became his assistant but all he had me doing was running errands. Finally, I said, ‘Why don’t you get the boss to hire me?”
Bingham chuckles. “Well, I got hired for $60 a week. But because this photographer landed me the job, I had to fork over half my salary to him on the down low.”
Bingham said he learned photography by trial and error. “Sometimes I would go to shoots with no film or film that was overexposed or underexposed,” Bingham chuckled. “But I always had a good excuse as to why the film didn’t turn out.”
A fortuitous meeting with Cassius Clay changed Bingham’s life forever.
“One of my assignments was to cover Cassius Clay, this loud mouth, in 1962,” Bingham recalls. “At the time, I didn’t know who he was. I introduced myself at the press conference at the Sheraton Hotel, took my photos and left. Later that afternoon, I saw him and his brother standing at the corner of 5th and Broadway downtown. Ali was in town at the Alexander Hotel where he was staying for the Logan fight.”
Thinking that Ali was waiting for a bus, Bingham offered them a ride. “Ali said they were just looking at the girls,” Bingham recalls. “I told them I had some errands to run and then I’d show them around Los Angeles.”
That initial meeting blossomed into a lifelong friendship. Over the course of 40 years, Bingham shot thousands of photos of Muhammad Ali that captured many aspects of his personality-training for an upcoming bout, relaxing at home with his family or being playful with his children. Many of the photographs were included in a book he wrote entitled Muhammad Ali; A 30-Year Journey. When Ali invited Bingham to the set of I Spy to meet Bill Cosby, the actor/comedian used his influence to get Bingham in the Camera Guild in 1969 as a still photographer for The Bill Cosby Show. Bingham became the first black person to work on a Hollywood camera guild crew. That led to Bingham becoming a still photographer for such movies as The Candidate, All The President’s Men, The Electric Horsemen and Ghost Dad.
“In 1968, I became a riot photographer,” said Bingham, who said that for five years, he was contracted by Life magazine to shoot riots in Detroit, Newark and Watts. Bingham recalled dodging policemen dressed in riot gear, flying bullets and billowing tear gas.
It wasn’t long before Bingham was contracted to shoot photos for Look, Time, Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, People, Ebony and other international magazines, documenting some of the most important events and personalities in modern times.
There was the political rise and violent death of Dr. Martin Luther King, the dramatic release from jail of former South African president Nelson Mandela, and the tragic campaign of Democratic nominee, Massachusetts senator Robert Kennedy.
There are also photos taken of Mexican civil rights leader Cesar Chavez, legendary folk singer Bob Dillon, Brazilian soccer player Pele, soul singer James Brown, the Jacksons’ R&B group and such international figures as ex-Angolan president Mubutu Sese Seko, Indira Gandhi, and Momar Khadaffi.
There were shots of the young Sammy Davis Jr. and Marlon Brando marching in the South during the civil rights movement.
“Ali is what most people know me for,” Bingham said. “People are surprised to see other photos of other things. It amuses me–it really does.”
When the Black Panthers were protesting the jailing of Black Panther Chairman Huey P. Newton in Oakland, Eldridge Cleaver specifically requested that Bingham fly to Oakland to photograph the Panthers. Bingham spent months following the group, recalling that he took a “couple of hundred rolls” of the members and organization during Newton’s trial. There are compelling pictures of Huey Newton sitting behind bars at the Alameda County Courthouse, pensively smoking a cigarette; Eldridge Cleaver wearing shades in a regal pose; and an Afro’d Kathleen Cleaver appearing somber and reflective at her lawyer’s office.
There are also photos of David Hilliard, later shot to death in a police ambush; an animated H. Rap Brown and Bobby Seale in a black beret with a raised fist.
Nearly 50 of the photos are on permanent exhibit at Freedom Hall gallery at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee.
“The Black Panthers wanted to make a change in their neighborhoods–they wanted to right the wrongs they saw,” recalls Bingham. “At the time, a lot of the black children were not educated. They were not being fed everyday or getting the things that they needed.”
Bingham’s riveting and unforgettable photographs of the Black Panthers will be published in a book in October with text by writer Gilbert Moore, who accompanied Bingham on his assignment. Most of the photographs have not been viewed for 40 years.
Bingham was honored in 2004 when he was asked to speak on behalf of all the amateur photographer at the 150th anniversary of George Eastman in Rochester, New York at the George Eastman house museum and library. “Receiving that honor meant a lot to me. Not bad for a guy who originally flunked out of photography class,” chuckled Bingham.
Howard Bingham’s Black Panther photos can be seen by appointment only at The Freedom Hall located at the Watts Labor Community Action Committee (WLCAC), 10950 So. Central Ave., L.A., CA 90059. To reserve a viewing time, call (323) 517-6477.