[Lessons learned by spending a day with an icon of the 20th Century and the photographic icon sent to create a portrait of him.]
Many years ago (1980's) I was fortunate enough to be the assistant for one of the great photographers of the last half of the 20th Century - Brian Lanker. I got a call from him saying that we had to go and shoot Muhammad Ali for Sports Illustrated at his home in an exclusive section of LA.
Upon arrival, we were allowed a quick look around to see where we might want to take the portrait and we initially picked a location in the dining room. A very ornate table and chairs. It was a difficult place to light - low ceilings, not much natural light, so everything that we tried looked contrived and "lit". Eventually, we settled upon a setup that we could live with and went to see when we could get Mr. Ali to sit for us.
Mr. Ali's handler ushered us into a small office just off the side portico entrance. Sitting on the other side of a small desk was "The Great One" himself. He was on a call but motioned for us to sit in the two seats opposite him. After watching and listening to an often erratic and disjointed conversation (punctuated with much hyperbole and flare) 2 hours later he finished that call.
He then started asking us why we were there. Brian explained what we were doing and that we had a setup in his dining room that would only take us a few minutes to finish. Noticing that he was off his call, both his wife and his handler appeared to remind him that he had a flight to NYC later in the day so we needed to get this shot done.
Mr. Ali continued to ask questions, joke, tease, bait and otherwise deflect the need for the photo. At one point - about another hour in - Brian asked to be excused and I found myself sitting face-to-face with one of the biggest personalities of the century (as some would say, "...of aaalll tiiiiymme!") He looked at me and asked if I liked magic. "Sure." I said. He instantly came around the desk and with great focus and clarity, he placed a small nerf ball in my hand and then proceeded to show me, with shaking hands, one trick after another where he made it disappear from my hand - even sitting this close to him. I could not tell how he did it.
Brian returned and the phone rang again. Mr. Ali picked up the receiver and began another spectacular display of his personality. Truly a sight to see. Suddenly - he looks up at me and reaches out to hand me the phone and says, "Pretend you're the FBI and you want to know what this person is doing calling Muhammad Ali!" I looked at Brian and he shrugged his shoulders - so I took the receiver and asked the person on the other end why they were calling. During this time Mr. Ali is laughing out loud with great joy. Finally, he lets me hand him back the phone... finishes up the call and then says that he is ready to have his picture taken. 4 hours have passed.
If you know anything about photography... you know that what little natural light we had shining into the dining room 4 hours ago was now no longer there and we were scrambling to get a balanced shot again. Except... this time... Mr. Ali was sitting there!
Brian took a roll or two in that setup... but we both knew that it wasn't the quality of shot that Brian (a Pulitzer Prize winner) would want/need to take back to the editors.
After the second roll, he looks across the camera and asks if & where Mr. Ali does his morning prayers. Slightly shocked - Mr. Ali says, "Of course!". You have to understand that at this time in history, and with Mr. Ali's personal history and struggles to be identified as a person of Muslim faith, this was a very personal type of question to be asking. Additionally, both his wife and handler had again appeared to remind him of the time constraints around his flight to NYC that afternoon. In the atmosphere of the day, it was a very gutsy thing for Brian to ask.
Mr. Ali thought for another minute or two as if considering to throw us out, but he eventually stated that he would normally face the window to camera left and behind Brian in his living room. Brian then asked him if he would mind showing us. Again - not something that was really a "proper" request - either at the time or of personalities in the room. But Mr. Ali graciously sat for another moment and then asked for someone to go get his Prayer Rug. He then proceeded to kneel down facing Mecca. Brain started shooting.
We took only a very few shots before everyone was reminded that there was a plane to catch.
We said our goodbyes. I delivered the film to the front desk of the United Airlines counter at LAX for an overnight to NYC. (The only way to get the film to NYC overnight in those days) and sent the film to NYC)
While I did have Polaroids of the dining room setup (but with me sitting as a stand-in in the chair). I never saw the finished shot of Mr. Ali in his living room until 2011 when Brian passed away suddenly and I went looking for it on Google. Here it is below (be sure to read the caption for a postscript to Mr. Ali's flight to NYC).
I learned several things that day... What greatness looks like up close. While past his prime... the light that shown off of Mr. Ali and his personality was bright and tangible. The mind behind the eyes was sharper than any I had ever witnessed to that point. I also learned that building a relationship with your subject and not being afraid to push for the situation or circumstance that will make your work/art better are two of the keys to being at the top of your profession - as Brian was.
While Brian and I did not remain close over the years... his influence on my work and life cannot be understated. In so many ways, and now with the passing of Mr. Ali, I am reminded once again that people and things pass. But true art can still speak beyond the grave. I was so blessed to have seen these two greats collaborate and create. One by being bold enough to ask. The other by being humble enough to kneel.