Muhammad Ali: The Greatest of All Time

  By John Veldhoen

I wonder, with the passing of Muhammad Ali, and as rumors whisper over the long-term fate of combat sports, in light of class-action lawsuits in other sports waged over damages caused by repetitive head injury, what will be the lasting photographic legacy of boxing? Leon Gast’s stately documentary “When We Were Kings” seemed to render the destiny of a generation of novelists as nostalgic, as they coincidentally had boxing as their topic, in the persons of Muhammad Ali, and George Forman. The title indicates dissipation from a regal image, to something less, which is only the immemorial switch from iconicity to realism; Or how we feel about the past changes to what we can say about the present.

Fighting itself may have found a fitting tribute in Katherine Dunn’s last published review of Leonard Gardner’s novel “Fat City”, written just before her recent passing, when she wrote “An ancient truism of the sport is that it is so difficult that only the desperate will endure it as a grueling escape tunnel from whatever cultural or fiscal or psychological ghetto has them trapped. It’s a demanding and painful path, with no guarantees and plenty of risk.” Which may be why Muhammad Ali figured so largely to so many as “king of the world”, and one of the most recorded photographic subjects in history, in documentaries, fictional films, and in still photographs.

Throughout his public life there was a childlike playfulness in Ali that seemed to transcend the brutality of his sport. After his career he became in appearance a peaceable, kind, and gentle man. The spectacle of violence comes through in the oversized book “Goat”, but the more economical “The Greatest of All Time”, also from Taschen, will do more for anyone who wants to survey how in the twentieth century people made myths from pictures.

I think what I like best about this book is that looking backward it presents a reality check on the pictures within. Looking at the photographers in this book who shot Ali, from a master like Neil Leifer, to Thomas Hoepker, and Annie Leibowitz, I was led to ask, given the advances in imaging technology, what could combat sports photography look like today? Would it engage on narrative ground, thus requiring little else besides the twin-lens cameras that Leifer sometimes used? Or would a photographer seek to capture the instance and actuality of the objective spectacle of violence, and is that the moral ground that the narrative photos of the past missed? Looking at this book, it begs the questions, if today’s cameras are better truth-telling tools, because of the instances they can technically capture, should we then have more honest depictions of the sheerness of trauma before our eyes? What would that prompt, as a reply?

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.