Shooting Muhammad Ali: An interview with Al Satterwhite

Both photos of Muhammad Ali copyright Al Satterwhite and used with permission.

In 1970, Muhammad Ali was returning to boxing after being banned from the ring for more than three years over his refusal to serve in the U.S. Army. The first opponent he faced during the comeback was L.A.'s Jerry Quarry, the great white hope of the day and a fan favorite at the Olympic Auditorium near downtown. Ali stopped Quarry in Atlanta, Georgia, after opening a deep cut over Quarry's left eye in the third round. Then, not long after dispatching Argentina's Oscar Bonavena, Ali challenged Joe Frazier for the heavyweight championship, the so-called "Fight of the Century," in early 1971.

Photographer Al Satterwhite shot Ali in Miami during his training sessions for both the Quarry and the Frazier bouts. Now based in Redondo Beach, Satterwhite is attempting to publish a book of photographs of Ali from that time, many of which have never been seen, using a Kickstarter campaign to finance the project. His deadline is fast approaching: He must raise a total of $32,500 before Friday, October 24. Recently, LA Observed spoke with Satterwhite about photographing Muhammad Ali at two key moments of his career.

LAO: How did you end up shooting Muhammad Ali in 1970-71?

AS: I was a magazine photographer at the time and worked mostly on assignment. I was living in Palm Beach, and my agency in New York, Camera 5, called and said, "Go down to Miami Beach and shoot Ali."

LAO: Had you shot much boxing before then?

AS: I'd never shot a boxer or a fight. But I went down there and introduced myself to Angie Dundee [Ali's longtime trainer whose brother, Chris, owned the 5th Street Gym]. He introduced me to Ali, and then I sort of disappeared into the wall. You know, they get used to you.

Ali didn't pay attention to the camera. He knew I was there, but he wasn't playing to me. He was playing to the sportswriters. They were always saying, "Ali, what's your secret?" One time, he took an envelope and wrote, "The Secret of Muhammad Ali" on it. And he's flashing it, holding it out to the sportswriters. That was his sense of humor, which I totally loved.

LAO: How often did you shoot at the gym?

AS: I don't remember exactly. I would go down for three or four days, and then I'd wait to go back because Angie would say, "He's going to be something else next week." I ended up shooting about 55 rolls of film. There's no color. It's all black and white.

LAO: Did you hang out with him much outside the gym?

ali-satterwhite-smiles.jpgAS: We'd go around after the workout to where he was staying. People would call out, "Hey, Ali!" They'd stop the car and he'd run out and shake their hands and get a picture taken. It was Ali being Ali, not Ali saying, "I gotta do this because there's a camera-man around." He didn't give a shit about me. He was a real person.

One time, we were driving around Miami Beach. He said, "Pull over here." There was a house for sale. I guess he was looking at houses. He said to me, "Why don't you go and ask them what they want." I said, "Why me?" He said, "'Cause you're the only white guy in the car."

LAO: Was the atmosphere in the gym different after Ali beat Jerry Quarry and was preparing to fight Joe Frazier?

AS: If my memory serves me right, there were more spectators and more press. I have a picture of him seated with his robe on, and he's surrounded by seven or eight writers.

LAO: But you didn't cover the actual fights, in Atlanta or New York, did you?

AS: No, because nobody hired me. Hell, Life Magazine hired Frank Sinatra to take pictures [of Ali-Frazier in Madison Square Garden]. I did shoot Ali later, after I moved out to L.A. in the 1970s and he was living here. He had a track meet and I got an assignment to shoot it. I was surprised that he remembered me.

LAO: Did you ever shoot Quarry or Frazier?

AS: No. I don't think I ever shot another boxer other than Ali.

LAO: Do you have a favorite photograph in the series?

AS: I like "The Secret." It's kind of cool because there is no secret. Or, you know, there's a lot of secrets. There's another shot of him that I like. He's in an empty room with a mirror leaning up against the wall. He's sort of looking at his body in the mirror. It's Ali being introspective. That's what I always look for, those quiet moments.

LAO: You've only got a few days to meet your Kickstarter goal. How is it going?

AS: It's not looking good, but it's not over until the fat lady sings or I have to write a check. I just emailed my printer-distributor and told him to think about becoming my partner because, if I don't make the number, he won't have a book to print.

LAO: You were successful with your Hunter S. Thompson book via Kickstarter. Why do you think raising money for the Ali project has proven to be so challenging?

AS: Hunter has a lot of fans who are willing to spend money. Ali may have a lot of fans, but it's possible that there are already too many Ali books out there. Also, a lot of Ali fans only want fight pictures. Mine aren't the fights. They're behind-the-scenes. Other people say, "Well, there's a lot of Kickstarter fatigue." I don't know if that's true or not.

LAO: What else are you working on these days?

AS: I'm working on my book series called "aRound." I have finished "aRound New York," and I have almost finished "aRound L.A." I've got everything shot but I haven't edited it yet. I need to finish London, Paris, Rome, Venice, and then maybe Tokyo and Moscow. They're all fish-eye images. They're 180-degree, round pictures. With digital, they're incredibly sharp.

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