The Sunday Profile : The View Finder : He has seen things and gone places no other photographers dared. But Howard Bingham’s best shots hit very close to home.
Howard Bingham is chatting easily through his power lunch, explaining between mouthfuls how he goes about snagging the photos that have eluded some of his peers. He is not at Morton’s, enjoying an icy martini as he destroys a filet mignon and Caesar salad. Nor is he perched on a leather booth at Maple Drive, noshing on homemade turkey sausages washed down with an interesting little Chardonnay.
Instead, he is hurtling south on the Harbor Freeway--well above the posted speed limit--crunching on a taquito swimming in a lethal salsa verde and taking gulps of Snapple from a bottle clenched between his knees. Not a drop spills on his handmade ostrich-skin cowboy boots, which, despite their beat-up appearance, cost more than many middle managers make in a week.
That lunch says a lot about how Bingham sees himself and his work. He is a homeboy who has done well and who is still firmly attached to his home in southeast Los Angeles. Although he has documented the glamorous and famous, Bingham’s eye wanders to the undocumented parts of the city, to the people who often serve lunch rather than “do” it.
For more than 35 years, he has captured African American life here, doing his work with an unobtrusiveness that has become his trademark. “I can’t recall exactly when I met him,” former Mayor Tom Bradley says with a shrug, “he was just there. . . .”
His face may seem naggingly familiar, his name may or may not register, but Bingham’s photographs garner instant recognition: an elegantly glowering Huey P. Newton, the former (and very late) chairman of the Black Panther Party, surrounded by party faithful; black Angelenos shouting at tense, weapon-brandishing LAPD officers; Muhammad Ali, glistening with sweat, after championship bouts in Miami, Zaire, Manila; Bill Cosby mugging for his Kodak ads; Robert Redford on his illuminated steed as the Electric Horseman.
Bingham’s photo files are too disorganized to be called archives. Still, as drawer upon drawer of his filing cabinet opens, pieces of forgotten local history come forward.
Here is former Peace Corps Director Sargent Shriver (father of Maria, father-in-law of Conan the Republican) cutting the ribbon that opened the Watts Family Health Center on Compton and 103rd during the Watts Festival, once an annual cultural celebration. In his summer suit and boutonniere, Shriver looks like a benevolent colonial come, from the mother country, to inspect the natives.
Here are Burt Lancaster, Marlon Brando, Sammy Davis Jr. and James Brown, all young and slim and frightfully earnest, sharing a dais at a Hollywood fund-raiser for Mississippi Freedom Riders. And a dashiki-clad Maulana Karenga, book-ended by look-alike security guards, addressing mourners at the Coliseum in April, 1968, after the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated.
And, a year or so later, an almost willowy former opera student named Coretta Scott King in solo concert at Second Baptist Church. Budd Schulberg instructing his proteges at the Watts Writers’ Workshop. The eerily pristine Watts Towers, without scaffolding. Malcolm X, as agog as any other fan, leaning back to snap a photo of Muhammad Ali at a Miami lunch counter.
Although he has lived here nearly all of his life, Bingham was born in Jackson, Miss., in 1939, the first of seven children. His parents, the Rev. Willie E. Bingham Jr. and Willie Emmaline Bingham, sought to escape the suffocating weight of segregation and struck out for a new beginning in the West.
The family settled near 49th and Hooper but soon moved out to Imperial Highway, a bucolic place where young Howard and his friends could finish their chores and fish in a nearby canal surrounded by tall grass meadows. “We lived one block east of Central, right on the canal--we used to catch crayfish down there,” Bingham says. “The canal’s still there, but it’s all concrete now.”
The neighborhood contained a little bit of every ethnicity and was a world unto itself. “There was a mom-and-pop store run by a Mexican couple on the corner; we had an account there,” Bingham recalls. “And on the next corner was a drive-in.”
The Bingham children rode the Red Car to San Pedro, Long Beach and Downtown. “We had a bus line--the Southern California Transportation Company--that would take you anywhere. You could go to Compton or Huntington Park for a dime.”
Their parents didn’t worry, partly because they were quite clear on the consequences of “acting out"--the Rev. Bingham was a strict disciplinarian--and partly because the streets were safe.
Bingham attended Compton public schools, graduating in Centennial High’s second class in 1956. Several classmates went on to successful athletic careers: Roy White with the Yankees, Bobby Thompson as a New York Giant, Reggie Smith with the Dodgers and Charlie Dumas as a world-class high-jumper.
He enrolled in Compton Junior College and started to have fun. Fun, of the social sort, had been forbidden in the reverend’s strict household. “To this day, I don’t know how to dance,” Bingham says with a laugh. “My parents didn’t allow it.”
But his considerable charm compensated for a lack of motor skills, and to his amazed delight the college ladies favored him--despite a machine-gun stutter. “They don’t know why I do it,” he says. “One doctor told my mother it was because I kept too much in when I was a kid. But in my father’s house, you watched what you said if you didn’t want to get whupped.” His new social life was wonderful but threatened to torpedo his academic status. “I was actually a music major. I’d taken piano and could play the violin. As a child, I’d been told I had a gift for music, but,” Bingham says sheepishly, “I lost interest in it because I always had to practice while other kids were out playing football.”
He left college, where he had failed a photography course, and went looking for work. He found it at Vons, mopping up and moving stock. After two years, it dawned on him that it was useless to aspire to bagging or checking, “because black folks didn’t have those kinds of jobs back then.”
Bingham decided to do what he most wanted. “A couple of my neighbors were photographers, La Vern and Myron Hodson, so I’d go over there and watch them work.” It wasn’t the picture-taking that he found so attractive: “I liked their (modus operandi)--they always had girls over the house, for photo contests.”
After appearing at the door of the Los Angeles Sentinel for a solid week to beg for work, photo editor Cliff Hall took pity on Bingham and allowed him to observe. (“He told me ‘Come in--but don’t touch anything!’ ”) A week later, Hall consented to inquire whether Bingham might be hired. To their mutual surprise, management agreed.
“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 says of his early on-the-job training. Under Hall’s guidance, Bingham’s photos improved and were reproduced regularly, and he spent much of his time chronicling the daily life of black Los Angeles.
Meanwhile, private clients wanted the photographer to capture weddings, church functions and other social events ignored by the mainstream press. (“Black folk made very infrequent appearances in the (regular) paper, unless the crime was big-time and/or against whites.”) Moonlighting increasingly interfered with his day job, and the Sentinel ultimately fired Bingham 18 months after hiring him.
“I was devastated at first,” Bingham admits, “but actually, in retrospect, it was the best thing in the world that could have happened to me. Because if I’d stayed at the Sentinel, I never would have done half the things I’ve done since then.” Such as documenting the career of his best friend, Muhammad Ali.
Bingham met Cassius Marcellus Clay when the Sentinel assigned him to cover the sleek young fighter’s bout with George Logan at the Sports Arena. Driving down Broadway, near 5th, a few hours after the fight, he spotted Clay and his brother hanging around, soaking up the ambience of a city much larger than their Louisville, Ky., hometown.
“I pulled over and asked them what they were doing, and they said, ‘Looking at girls.’ I told them I could drive them around, show them a little L.A., but they’d have to come with me while I did some errands first.”
The two young men hopped into Bingham’s car and saw such exotic sights as his photo lab and a Compton bowling alley before he took them to see black Los Angeles and finally to his mother’s for a meal. By day’s end, a rapport that would strengthen and deepen over the years had been established. Whenever the boxer was in town, he tagged along with the photographer.
Bingham photographed Clay’s rise and metamorphosis into Muhammad Ali while also covering the burgeoning unrest in America’s cities. But when Watts imploded in 1965, he was out of the country. “In Sweden, with Ali,” he says, shaking his head. “Here we were, surrounded by white people, while L.A. was burning up. . . .”
A few months later, a second “mini-riot” broke out. Jordan Bonfante, then Life magazine’s L.A. bureau chief, caught Bingham at home and asked him to shoot. “They’d sent all the white photographers down there that evening, but the next week, they only ran my photos,” Bingham says.
And they were some photos. His shots of a weapons cache--rifles, handguns and ammunition neatly aligned on a yellow towel--were an exclusive peek into the explosive potential of angry teen-agers. “The rioters knew I was with Life,” Bingham recalls, “and in order to help me, they took me to where their ammo was stashed. They knew I’d not tell on them.”
“He became a fixture free-lancer after that,” says Bonfante, now L.A. bureau chief for Time magazine.
“Some people fussed about those photos when they were published,” says Danny Bakewell, Brotherhood Crusade president and an old friend of Bingham. “They thought Howard should have turned those brothers in to the police. But Howard was able to get those pictures because he didn’t violate press ethics--but he didn’t violate the brother-in-the-street’s ethics, either.”
Because of such unusual access, Life put Bingham on summer retainer. He crisscrossed the country, covering urban uprisings in Buffalo, N.Y.; Bakersfield, and San Francisco. (“Have riot, will travel,” he says with a grin.)
Things got more grim the next summer in Detroit.
“It was wild, bullets everywhere. I didn’t know if we were going to get out alive,” Bingham recalls. “I got on the floor of my hotel (room), called my mother and Jordan Bonfante,” and prayed until dawn--"when I got the hell out of there.”
That was Bingham’s last riot. “I got tired of war duty,” he says.
In 1968, he went to Chicago to cover the Democratic National Convention. Thinking back on the vicious police beatings of anti-war protesters there, his face hardens: “I always say that if I had had a gun that night, I wouldn’t have minded going to jail.”
Those photos were also widely circulated in Life, and Bingham became the second black contract photographer, after Gordon Parks, in the magazine’s history. He brought back a graphically stark portrayal of the Mississippi Delta’s black poor. And, closer to home, chronicled the rise of the Black Panther Party.
The Panthers allowed the photographer and writer Gilbert Moore unprecedented access for a story that Life ultimately chose not to run. (“It scared them,” Bingham says.) But the weeks-long project became “A Special Rage,” a book in which Moore wryly describes how Bingham almost blew it on their first day with the group in Berkeley:
“You not taking no pictures in here--mother------,” a voice behind us said. We spun around to confront another Panther. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen, but his voice had all of the raspy authority of an Army master sergeant. Howard whipped out his press credentials. In his haste to show that he was “clean,” his hand obscured half of the press pass. The visible portion read: “Los Angeles Police Department.”
The Panther was astonished. “You a pig?” he asked. “Now I know you not takin’ no pictures ‘round here.”
They were saved by Bobby Seale--a Panther and the only black member of the infamous Chicago Seven--who vouched for them and went on to give them a valuable piece of advice: “If you cats are gonna be taking pictures, better watch your step. These brothers are not playin’.”
Bingham’s dealings with such groups as the Black Panthers and the Nation of Islam might have blocked his entree into other, more mainstream venues. It hasn’t. A.S. Doc Young, the grand old columnist of the Sentinel, credits Bingham’s affability.
“He’s genuinely a nice person. You cannot find anybody to say bad things about him. Really, it’s miraculous, because for all of his loyalty to Ali, for instance, he never got drawn into the controversy surrounding the Black Muslims. So he could be close to Ali, Elijah Muhammad, even Malcolm X at a time when to associate with Black Muslims, you were shunned by the media.”
Nor has he been touched by the tawdry side of boxing. “People who may be on the fringes of that other world would never think of Howard doing wrong, or asking him to,” former Mayor Bradley says. “He’s just accepted as part of the club for who he is.”
And who he is still very much the reverend’s son. He is unfailingly polite to virtually everyone. Calls to check on the neighborhood old folks. Visits his mother, who was widowed in 1985, almost daily. Does not confuse legitimate black anger with wanton violence. (“Look, those guys who beat Reginald Denny, that verdict was a joke. They should be under the jail, in cells right next door to those cops who beat Rodney King. Both groups were wrong.”)
Bingham’s low-key personality, touted by Bill Cosby to network management, also helped him break into the entertainment industry. He became one of the first black members of Local 659 of the cameramen’s union. He would later become one of the first black still photographers on a movie set, shooting such box-office successes as “All the President’s Men,” “The Electric Horseman” and “The Candidate.”
Between movie gigs, he continued to accompany Ali around the globe, acting as an anchor in the boxer’s turbulent personal life. A photograph taken near Boston in 1975 shows Ali with three attractive women. Standing slightly behind the fighter, linking arms, are his regal second wife, Belinda; the woman who would soon be his third wife, Veronica Porche, and Lonnie Williams, the shy, freckled young Louisville neighbor who would become his fourth wife.
“Be sure to say ‘his fourth and last wife,’ ” Lonnie Ali says with a laugh while trying to dress wiggle-worm Assad, the couple’s 3-year-old son. “Howard often tells me, ‘I was here before you, and I’ll be here after you go.’ He was laughing when he said it, but he wasn’t kidding.”
Bingham married only once, to Carolyn Turner, with whom he has two sons, Dustin and Damon. The marriage succumbed after 14 years to Bingham’s single-minded focus on his work.
“Look, this was his way out of Compton, and it took him around the world,” says Regina Jones, a longtime friend who is fond of both Binghams. “Howard saw his work as his only means of caring for his family. And it took him away a lot, which, to a wife, doesn’t feel very good.”
Damon, 21, lives with his dad and manages a rap group. Seventeen-year-old Dustin is in Redlands with his mother but often spends weekends with Dad. The kids seem unfazed by their father’s connections, and for good reason: A family photo shows infant Damon carefully cradled in one of Ali’s arms, while the other shakes a mock fist at him. A huge pastel portrait of Dustin by LeRoy Neiman hangs over the fireplace (“to--and for--Dustin”). They both have closetfuls of boxing mementos.
Howard Bingham’s trip from his modest stucco bungalow in southeast L.A. to the exotic wood-paneled private planes of the glitterati doesn’t mystify anyone who knows him well. “He’s personable and very funny, and this has given him entree everywhere,” Time magazine’s Bonfante says. “Doors fly open before him. With all sorts of people.”
“Howard,” explains Nashville, Tenn., businessman and political operative John Jay Hooker, “is the world’s best professional guest. There’s nobody who has more dignity and worthwhileness.”
And he has remained, in the words of former Life reporter Gil Moore, “jes’ plain folks.”
“The average person who has achieved what Howard has achieved would normally not be living in his neighborhood,” agrees the Sentinel’s Young. “They’d be in the Hollywood Hills or Beverly Hills somewhere.”
Bingham doesn’t see the point. “I have always lived south of Imperial,” he says with pride. “It makes me crazy when they call everything south of Wilshire South-Central. All of black L.A. ain’t South Central. And Watts is one mile by one mile.”
That sense of community fueled Bingham’s quixotic run for Congress in 1978. “He did it because he genuinely wanted to use his connections to help his neighborhood,” Bradley says, “but he hadn’t given careful thought to the enormity of the House campaign--fund raising, the necessity of getting the message out, things like that.”
In retrospect, Bingham is amused at his own naivete. He organized a fund-raiser with an all-star roster (friends Marvin Gaye, Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, Barry White, Louis Gossett and Sammy Davis Jr. came to help), but neglected to delegate such critical details as publicity. “Nobody came. Instead of financing my campaign, I went deep into the hole--but the party afterward was fantastic!”
With the publication last fall of “Muhammad Ali: A Thirty-Year Journey” (Simon & Schuster), Bingham has achieved a longtime goal: Here, finally, is the fruit of three decades of travel and friendship with the person he knows best. (Ali, in turn, says he has been blessed with Bingham’s friendship. “We met in Los Angeles in 1962, and we’ve been friends ever since.”) That accomplished, might Bingham take some time off?
“I should,” he murmurs, looking distractedly at his jumble of a living room, where plaques of appreciation are stacked vertically like storm windows waiting to be hung.
But there are a few things to take care of first. The phone rings constantly; one day’s backlog of messages is astonishing: Lonnie Ali, with whom he speaks several times daily; Camille (Mrs. Bill) Cosby; producer Scott (“The Firm”) Rudin; television journalist Charlayne Hunter Gault; Sen. Orrin Hatch (Yes, that Orrin Hatch. “He’s a friend. When Anita Hill testified, I was in Washington, and he got me in and got me a good seat.”); Madonna’s office (“She’s a boxing fan.”). And King Hussein would love for him and Ali to visit; would that be possible?
All these messages, letters and faxes from power centers across the country and the world, and they land, not in the salt-misted Palisades or the cloistered wealth of Bel-Air. Instead, they land just shy of the Century Freeway, in a small house crammed with the detritus of a too-full life. Far east of La Cienega. Way south of the 10. Mr. Bingham’s neighborhood.
Native: No. Born in Jackson, Miss., lives in southeast L.A.
Family: Divorced; two sons.
Passions: Chronicling the life of his community.
Interests: Documenting the life of Muhammed Ali.
On being the son of a minister and strict disciplinarian: “To this day, I don’t know how to dance. My parents didn’t allow it.”
On starting work with no experience: “I went off on jobs, came back with underexposed film, blurred film, no film--and I always had an excuse for what went wrong.”
On covering the Detroit riot for Life: “It was wild, bullets everywhere. I didn’t know if we were going to get out alive.”
On keeping the same address: “I have always lived south of Imperial. It makes me crazy when they call everything south of Wilshire South-Central. All of black L.A. ain’t South-Central. And Watts is one mile by one mile.”