Iconic photographer Howard Bingham remembered

You might say that Howard Lenoid Bingham was a world champion when it came to photography.  His circle of friends, and there were many, would say that Bingham was the epitome of friendship and loyalty.  To the Bingham family, he was a hero who cared deeply for his sons, parents, siblings, nieces, nephews, and extended family members.

To the world, Bingham was the best friend of world boxing champion and humanitarian Muhammad Ali. 

When I think about the “The Dash” poem written by Linda Ellis, there is a verse that comes to mind, “would you be proud of the things they say about how you spent your dash?” Bingham spent an extraordinary 77 years and for more than 50 of those years, his life was shared with the world – the biggest platform imaginable.

By all accounts, the Bingham dash is nothing short of continuous blessings even when he hit a few bumps in the road.  Born in Jackson, Mississippi, the Bingham family uprooted from the south and headed west.  They landed in Compton where Bingham attended Centennial High School and Compton College, where he enrolled in a photography class.

Howard Bingham and Marie Lemelle in 2001 at the Water and Power African American Association Black History Month program. Bingham was generous with his gift of photography. When President Bill Clinton attended a book signing at Eso Won Bookstore in Los Angeles, Bingham took a photo of Clinton shaking Lemelle’s hand without her knowledge. Courtesy Photo

His passion for photography did not waver even though he earned an “F.”  The Los Angeles Sentinel hired him as a staff photographer.  His stint was brief but before it was over, he was granted an assignment that changed his life. 

In 1962, Bingham covered a news conference about a young boxer Cassius Clay who would later take the name Muhammad Ali.

The rest, as Bingham said, was history.  A whirlwind of travel and meeting some of the most famous people in the world while at the side of Ali, was a life that Bingham would not have imagined only a few short years ago. 

Bingham had an independent career as a sought-after professional photographer for some of the most recognizable publications in the world: Newsweek, Sports Illustrated, Playboy, People, and Ebony, just to name a few.  

Many of us followed Bingham’s remarkable journey through the photos that were published, while others were by his side when in need of comfort and support.

The year 2016 was beyond difficult for Bingham when he lost his beloved son Damon and his lifetime friend Ali.  Bingham’s own journey had slowed down and finally ended. Three Kings were gone.

Los Angeles-based photographer Malcolm Ali shared his thoughts about Bingham. 

“Howard Bingham was a photographer’s photographer. He was humble, yet fearless, Ali said.” 

Ali was the official photographer for retired light-heavyweight champion Archie “Ole Mongoose” Moore, who was the longest reigning world light heavyweight champion of all time.  Cassius Clay and Archie Moore fought on November 15, 1962. Clay won the fight by TKO in the fourth round.

“Howard and his camera went to areas at a time when no one would dare to go,” said Ali.  “From photographing the Watts riots in 1965, Huey P. Newton while locked up in a jail cell in Oakland, California and the ups and downs of the greatest boxer of all times, Howard was not just a Black photographer, he was a world photographer who crossed all color lines and a friend to people of all colors and creeds. Bingham will always be my hero.”

On Jab. 6, 2017, Bingham’s life was celebrated at the First African Methodist Episcopal Church of Los Angeles. More than 800 people gathered to pay tribute to a man who impacted so many lives with his kindness, generosity, sense of humor, and his camera lens.  Pastor J. Edgar Boyd served as the officiant.  Expressions were offered by Catrice Monson, Los Angeles County Supervisor Mark Ridley Thomas, and Dr. William A. Burke.

Photographer Howard Bingham captured images of celebrities, particularly plenty of boxer Muhammad Ali. Photo by Robert Earl

On behalf of the City of Compton, I was privileged to present to the Bingham family two proclamations honoring his beautiful life which was signed by Mayor Aja Brown, Councilmembers Janna Zurita, Tana McCoy, Isaac Galvan, and Emma Sharif. District 4 Councilmember Emma Sharif also provided a proclamation in memoriam of Howard Bingham listing his biography and accomplishments as the pride of Compton.

Government resolutions were provided by Los Angeles Councilmember Curren Price (District 9), Assemblywoman District 62 and Assistant Speaker Pro Tempore Autumn R. Burke, and FAME.  Among the attendees were Ambassador Attallah Shabazz, Bill Withers, Richard Gant, Roger E. Mosley, Dolores Robinson, former U.S. Congresswoman Diane Watson, Los Angeles County Mark Ridley Thomas, Bernard and Shirley Kinsey, and photographers:  Malcolm Ali, Valerie Goodloe, Robert Earl, and Ian Foxx.

A private repast was held at the California African American Museum, which was the site of Bingham’s work displayed in the 2015 exhibit called “Light Catchers.” 

Aside from family, travel, and photography, one of Bingham enjoyed eating and breaking bread with family and friends.  In homage to his love of many types of cuisine, the repast was catered by Dulan’s, known for its soul food.

As the crowd gathered to share their favorite Bingham memory, I began with a story that meant a great deal for many of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power employees and the members of the Water and Power African American Association. In 2001, as the president of WPAAA, I invited Bingham to be the featured speaker for a Black History Month program. 

He graciously agreed and brought some of his prized photographs for display.  He shared several interesting stories about his photos including the one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Philanthropists Bernard and Shirley Kinsey paid their respects to Howard Bingham. The Kinsey Collection is one of the largest private collections of artifacts tracing African-American history. Photo: Robert Earl

 Award-winning Bill Withers, an inductee of the Grammy Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, shared a fond memory of Bingham.  “Howard could travel anywhere with no money,” said Withers.  “In 2009, Howard was being honored by the Stuttering Association for the Youth (formerly known as Our Time) in New York.” 

Withers asked Bingham where would he be staying and he replied with a friend.  Withers said “the friend” was a billionaire who accommodated Bingham with the entire top floor of The Sherry -Netherland luxury hotel on 5th Avenue.  Withers and Bingham shared a commonality as stutterers but it didn’t keep either of them from achieving notable accomplishments.

 Professional photographer and filmmaker Valerie Goodloe hosted Bingham on numerous holidays for family dinners.  “In 2010, I started a legends pictorial series in which I wanted Howard to be a part of it,” she said.  “I told him I would be making enchiladas.”  Goodloe’s vision was to include the work of the legends as part of the pictorial.  “I asked Howard to bring photos that highlighted his work.”

 Bingham showed up at my house with boxes of photos, slides, and negatives.  As we spent hours going through his collection, I was astonished at all the history he had captured,” Goodloe said.  “All this time, I thought his focus was mainly on Muhammad Ali, and while that was a huge part, I was looking at photos of Malcolm X, President Robert F. Kennedy, the Beatles, the Pope, Cesar Chavez, Elvis Presley, James Brown, and Mandela.”  Bingham not only watched history, he captured it.  

“Howard was so humble, I felt privileged that he considered me a friend,” said Goodloe.  “In a joking manner, Howard would always ask if my pictures were in focus.” 

 In 2008, Goodloe was a member of the press corps covering Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign trail. 

Photographer Robert Earl remembered Bingham, “as a master teacher who took time out of his schedule to talk and explain things to me and he was from my city of Compton.”

Visual artist and boxing journalist Mohammed Mubarak also has fond memories of Bingham.

“I’ve known Howard for many years but we really didn’t start connecting with each other until one day he brought Muhammad Ali out to Centennial High School where he and I both attended. He didn’t know that I also grew up in Compton and it was from that point on we began to stay in touch with each other.”

Mubarak said the turning point of their budding friendship occurred when the book, “Howard L. Bingham’s “Black Panthers 1968” was released. 

“Howard found out that I was also a former member of the Los Angeles Chapter,” Mubarak said. “We began to stay in contact with each other on a regular basis,” said Mubarak.  “When I first heard that he wasn’t doing well last summer, I immediately made it my mission to find out where he was located and get to his bedside as soon as I could.” 

Mubarak talks about his visit to Bingham after he was transferred to the Little Company of Mary Hospital in Torrance, California.  “I walked into Howard’s room and sat next to him,” said Mubarak.  “He looked at me and said in a soft voice, ‘Thanks for coming.’ Those three words made my day and it brought tears of joy to my eyes. “

In his book “Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey,” Bingham said,“I would like to thank Muhammad Ali for all the things he has meant to me in my life. I love this man immensely.  There will never be another one like him.”

Truth be told, there will never be another one like Bingham.

His legacy will continue to live on in the millions of photographs that told more than 1,000 words; those photos told world history.

“I had the greatest of all blessings because my eye and my camera became the world’s window to this magnificent life,” said Bingham.

Bingham is survived by his son Dustin, a granddaughter, and a host of relatives and long-time friends. 

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