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Arts

Why Muhammad Ali was a work of art

Muhammad Ali was not just one of the greatest ever boxers. He was a media-savvy cultural icon who is part of the history of photography. On what would've have been his 75th birthday, we look at Ali as a photo muse.

Normally, to call an athlete a "work of art" would be laughably pretentious. But there is no such thing as hyperbole when it comes to Muhammad Ali, the three-time heavyweight champion of the world who transcended sports to become a figure of major cultural and political significance.

The star boxer and photo muse would have turned 75 on January 17. Ali passed away on June 3, 2016, in Scottsdale, Arizona.

On the occasion of the anniversary of Ali's birth, we look back at an exhibition of more than 70 photographs in Berlin's Camera Work gallery, titled simply "Muhammad Ali," which covered his dramatic career as a boxer from 1960 to 1980.

Many offer rare insights into the man who was born Cassius Clay, but later changed his name when he converted to Islam in 1965. But most reveal Ali's unique ability in using photography to help manufacture his larger-than-life persona.

"Ali figured out early on how stage himself aesthetically, using visual language," co-curator Alexander Golya told DW. "And he worked with very good photographers. When two enormous creative people came together, the results were often amazing."

Case in point is a photo taken by Carl Fischer in 1967 depicting Ali pierced by arrows, which was inspired by Italian renaissance painting and which alluded to Ali's religiously-motivated refusal to be drafted into the army. For that he was widely lambasted in American public opinion, stripped of his title and banned from boxing for three years.

Two of the most prominent photographers in the exhibition are Germans, Volker Hinz and Thomas Hoepker.

"Hoepker was able to establish a personal relationship with Ali," Golya said. "Ali personally selected his photographers, and Hoepker was very low-key, which suited his personality. Hoepker also had the chance to accompany Ali for days at a time, something press photographers no longer have.

The exhibition "Muhammad Ali" originally ran from August 15 to October 10, 2015, in the Camera Work gallery in Berlin.

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