Malcolm X takes a photo of Cassius Clay – who was about to announce his conversion to Islam and his new name, Muhammad Ali – on February 25, 1964 in Miami. Malcolm X was staying at the Hampton House Motel, where he spoke to Ali, singer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown. The photo was taken for LIFE magazine by Bob Gomel.
Photo: photo by Bob Gomel used with permission of the artist
Towards the end of the movie “A Night in Miami,” Cassius Clay – hours after defeating Sonny Liston and declaring himself King of the World … and so pretty – is shopping at a small restaurant at the Hampton House Motel around a bowl of ice cream.
“I want a photo with Malcolm!” he said, referring to Malcolm X, who had advocated for the boxer’s conversion to Islam, which gave him a new name: Muhammad Ali.
The film follows Malcolm X for a meditative moment. A dangerous power struggle was in place within the Nation of Islam, and he had only one year to live. But Clay, at that point, got his picture.
Life magazine photographer Bob Gomel – the only member of the media inside the restaurant – grabbed the champ at the counter, a look of mock surprise with Malcolm X leaning on his shoulder, seemingly enjoying the moment of the party.
Gomel captured several enduring images of the fight and its aftermath. One of them included Malcolm X behind the counter taking a picture of Ali in a tuxedo. This iconic photo was acquired by the Library of Congress. The photo and the evening took on an important cultural weight. The fight and the encounters that followed were filmed by Gomel and were described in the biographies of Ali, Malcolm X and Cooke. That night became almost mythical, as it saw the rise of a cultural icon in Ali, lending itself to a play that would become a film.
As for Gomel, he had made a fleeting moment permanent, something he had done before and would do many times later as a legendary and famous photojournalist whose work spanned presidents and presidential funerals, Olympians in action and the Beatles on a beach.
“I would say the challenge is to do something better than before,” says Gomel, “It was something that instilled in me early in my career. At the start of my career, I had an editor at Life. I came back and said something hadn’t happened. And he said he never wanted to hear that. After that, I never hesitated to do whatever it took to get a photo.
Film on film
David Scarbrough, a professional photographer, met Gomel through mutual friends and colleagues. He has been in Houston for over 20 years; Gomel moved here in 1977.
Whenever the two met, Gomel would share his stories about working at Life from 1959 to 1969. Gomel resisted the idea of putting these stories in text form to accompany the photos in a coffee table book. Scarbrough therefore launched the idea of a film.
“I convinced him to do a proof of concept, and if he didn’t like her, we would let her down,” Scarbrough says.
Using two iPhones and a makeshift sound studio behind his house, Scarbrough asked Gomel to tell the stories behind some of his most famous photos.
These interviews became the basis of “Bob Gomel: Eyewitness”, available for streaming on Amazon, in which the photographer recounts his career, a mixture of his photographs and his on-camera commentary. Sometimes Scarbrough casts an outside image, starting from the first Ali / Liston fight. When Scarbrough called up the fight on YouTube, he thought he saw a familiar face in the chaos that followed Ali’s victory.
“I blew it up, and it was grainy, but there’s Bob on the other side of the ring, climbing up the ropes to get the shot. I had to work this out.
This shot is part of a theme throughout the film. Gomel talks about his terror shooting Olympic bobsledders from a bobsleigh. He is pictured in a wetsuit submerged in a swimming pool to capture a swimmer doing the butterfly. Gomel’s photo features the swimmer like a human wavelength, her body twisted in a way that is both beautiful and grotesque.
One of the most fascinating passages includes two presidential funerals. From an elevated space, Gomel photographed President John F. Kennedy’s casket in the Capitol Rotunda in 1963. His image is haunting for the light beaming through the rotunda. Gomel that day made a mental note that a direct aerial photograph in the rotunda could be striking. When President Dwight D. Eisenhower died six years later, Gomel installed a camera directly over his head.
“Everyone knows this photo,” Scarbrough says. “It was a meaningful moment captured by a well-executed photograph. But people don’t know the preparation to get the picture. Hours and hours of testing. It was before our digital age. You had to attach the camera, bring it back, test the lenses. The prep work was amazing.
Gomel had another concern. “I prayed that my lights wouldn’t start blinking before the event.
“I always make a distinction. I’m saying you can take a photo or you can take a photo. My goal has always been to take pictures. To get a feel for what you are trying to accomplish, then find the best way to do it. “
Life behind the camera
Gomel grew up in the Bronx, where his interest in photography began while he was still in elementary school. He delivered groceries to earn money for his first camera and set up a darkroom at his parents’ house. He received a journalism degree from New York University before spending three years stationed in Japan as a naval aviator. He says landing planes on an aircraft carrier created a certain fearlessness.
“I never envisioned safe spaces when I work,” he says. “I was standing on the struts of a helicopter and making sure my wide-angle lens cleared the blades. But I never thought to worry. A safety strap on the cockpit wall was all I needed.
He was hired by Life magazine in 1959, “a childhood dream,” he says in the film.
Life at the time had an excellent reputation for its photojournalism. Gomel shot heads of state, athletes and celebrities.
The rush for images that passes in “Bob Gomel: Eyewitness” is astounding both for the richness of the individual photographs and for the breadth of Gomel’s work. The photographs are clearly isolated, but the accompanying narratives provide enrichment by the context. A bust of a session with President Richard M. Nixon was recovered a day later when Gomel returned with brighter ties. He also discusses his painting-like photograph of Manhattan at night during a power outage in 1965, believed to be the first double-exposure image released as a news photo.
In the 1970s, Gomel started doing commercial photography, which led him to Houston. He had worked closely with an advertising manager at Ogilvy who opened an office in Houston in the early 1970s when Shell moved from New York.
“I came on a lark and liked what I saw,” he says.
He has since made Houston his home, working here and sometimes offering tough love to students. Long ago, he hired famous photographer Mark Seliger – who at the time was on the verge of graduating from the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts – as an assistant.
“A month or two later, I fired him,” says Gomel. “He was too good. I told him to leave Houston and go to where the big action was. Fortunately, he took my advice.
Return to Miami
Seliger is the kind of photographer who could typically appear in a documentary about an old master like Gomel. But Scarbrough had only finished talks with his subject when the pandemic ended his work. So he let Gomel’s stories and his photographs tell the story, which he distributed through Amazon Video Direct.
After a short introduction, the film passes in February 1964, when Life sends Gomel to Miami and entrusts him to Clay before becoming Ali. Liston was favored 7-1, but Life wanted a clay cover photo ready in case he got upset.
A few days before the fight, Gomel caught a sweaty Clay smiling. The fight took place on Saturday. On Monday, Gomel had a magazine cover.
But the aftermath of the fight turned out to be interesting as well. Because he was assigned to Clay, Gomel traveled with the boxer’s entourage – which included Clay’s brother and Malcolm X – to the Hampton House in Brownsville because no South Beach hotel would accept black guests. .
Playwright Kemp Powers made his debut in “One Night in Miami” seven years ago. Powers was drawn to a reunion that took place after the fight, when Malcolm X, Clay, singer Sam Cooke and football star Jim Brown gathered in a room in the Hampton. Her story, an imaginary account of their conversation, stems from four prominent black men at the crossroads of personal, professional, cultural and spiritual paths. Clay would announce his new name and new faith soon; Brown would quit the NFL for the movies; Malcolm X and Cooke are both reportedly victims of violence.
Late last year, actor and filmmaker Regina King introduced a filmed version via Amazon. The film plays with the timeline, reversing the sequence of the dinner and the hotel room reunion. He also recreates this scene from Gomel’s photo: Malcolm X behind the counter, camera in hand.
Gomel expresses his frustration that no one involved in the film has contacted him for a license or even credit. He resisted offers of insurance and equipment allowances from Life to claim the rights to his photos.
The recreation of photographic moments is not unique to “One Night in Miami”; Netflix’s “The Crown” – to name just one TV show – is full of snapshots based on photographs.
Gomel has already dealt with the matter. He found the image on T-shirts, pillows and earrings.
“It’s new to deal with organizations that don’t do the right thing and don’t contact you,” he says. Gomel remembers the estate of golfer Arnold Palmer taking a photo that Gomel took for Palmer’s clothing line.
“It was like that for 50 years,” he says. “People who respect traditions.”
“Eyewitness” therefore provides the story behind the photo behind the film.
“Almost everyone in this context is long gone,” says Gomel. “I am one of the very few eyewitnesses to actually be there.”