Lens Blog: Two Champions: Muhammad Ali and Gordon Parks

Last Friday, the staff at the Gordon Parks Foundation was putting up the wall text for its latest exhibit, “American Champion,” a show it had been planning for months. It showcased the famous photographer’s connection to another African-American giant, someone who — like Parks — made his mark on a global stage.

Muhammad Ali.

Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., the foundation’s executive director, had known that the boxing great was seriously ill. But when he got a call from The New York Times requesting Parks’s dramatic, close-up portrait of Ali’s face, Mr. Kunhardt knew death was imminent. Indeed, by Saturday morning, the world would know that the champ had died. While many newspapers ran the image of Ali looming triumphantly over the fallen Sonny Liston, The Times ran Parks’s introspective portrait (slide 6) — two days in a row, no less.

“All the other pictures I’ve seen of Ali have been in the fight, in the moment, in the ring,” Mr. Kunhardt said. “Someone said to me, this picture is like the Mona Lisa of Ali. It’s a portrait of Gordon’s Ali. It has Ali’s essence and spirit.”

“American Champion,” which opened on Monday at the foundation’s…

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