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Howard Bingham (1939–2016)

Photographer Howard Bingham—famous for his pictures that documented the figures and experiences of Black life in the United States for more than fifty years—died on December 15, writes The Guardian’s Sean O’Hagan.

Bingham was born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1939, and his family relocated to Los Angeles in 1943. Bingham studied photography at Compton Community College, but did not pass his finishing exam. Nonetheless, he pushed his way into a photo position at the Los Angeles Sentinel, learning the particularities of his trade through trial and error: “I went off on jobs, came back with underexposed film, blurred film, no film, and I always had an excuse for what went wrong.”

Bingham met Muhammad Ali in 1962 when he went to cover a boxing match at the Los Angeles Memorial Sports Arena for a local newspaper. Bingham befriended Ali that day, taking the boxer on a car tour of the city, and then bringing him to his mother’s house for dinner. Their friendship was lifelong—Bingham published several books on Ali, including Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight (2000), and Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey (1993). The photographer also worked as a producer on the fighter’s biopic, Ali (2001).

Bingham recorded the tumultuousness of the US throughout the 1960s, and took pictures of the Black civil rights movement’s many figureheads: Ron Karenga, Malcom X, Eldridge and Kathleen Cleaver, Bobby Seale, Stokely Carmichael, and Angela Davis. He also photographed the funeral of Martin Luther King Jr. Life magazine wanted to do an article on the rise of the Black Panthers, but Eldridge Cleaver, the group’s leader, talking to the magazine from jail, agreed to it only if Bingham was the one taking pictures.

In 1978, Bingham tried running for Congress as a Democrat, but failed. He recruited Richard Pryor, Marvin Gaye, and Barry White for a fundraising concert, but few showed up as the event was badly mismanaged. “Nobody came,” said Bingham, “but the party afterwards was fantastic!”