KANSAS CITY, Mo. – The charismatic and controversial American heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali, as photographed by Gordon Parks, is the subject of an exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City that runs through July 5. “Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali: The Image of a Champion, 1966/1970” was organized by the Nelson-Atkins in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation and features approximately 55 photographs Parks took of Ali while on assignment for Life magazine. The museum has recently acquired approximately 13 works, including selections from the “American Champion” portfolio, which will be on view.
The photographs in the exhibition derive from two in-depth assignments for Life, the first in 1966 and the second in 1970. Image of a Champion emphasizes the way Parks (1912-2006) and Ali (1942-2016) came together for these projects to shape a sympathetic public image of the young champion during this tumultuous period in Ali’s career.
“During their lives, Parks and Ali transcended their respective roles as journalist and athlete to make sense of the American struggle against racial injustice,” said Julián Zugazagoitia, CEO and director of the Nelson-Atkins. “Though they held different views on the challenges they faced as black men, they understood each other as few others could.”
Parks’ position at Life gave him a vast influential platform. He had privileged access and pictured Ali in unguarded moments, devoid of the bravado that had come to define his public persona. He photographed Ali as he trained in Miami and London for an overseas fight against Henry Cooper, meeting with fans, practicing his religion and navigating throngs of reporters. Many of Parks’ photographs suggest a meta-awareness of the media’s fascination with Ali.
“As a seasoned journalist, Parks well understood the power wielded by the media to shape public opinion,” said April M. Watson, photography curator at the Nelson-Atkins and curator of the exhibition. “Ali, who was a master of media hype, could easily have been a challenging subject, were it not for the trust he placed in Parks. Their mutual respect resulted in a collective portrait that is at once intimate, nuanced and earnest – qualities not often associated with the controversial young champion during these years.”
This exhibition will be accompanied by the publication Gordon Parks x Muhammad Ali, published in collaboration with the Gordon Parks Foundation and printed by Steidl. The book includes a foreword by Julián Zugazagoitia and Peter W. Kunhardt Jr.; with essays by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, April M. Watson and Gerald Early.
The Nelson-Atkins is located at 45th and Oak streets, Kansas City, MO. Hours are Monday, Wednesday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Thursday/Friday, 10 a.m.–9 p.m.; Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. The museum is closed Tuesday. Admission to the museum is free to everyone. For museum information, phone 816-751-1ART (1278) or visit nelson-atkins.org.