Rediscovered images of Ali in Miami pack a punch

Louisville Courier-Journal

“A Rare Glimpse Into the Life of The Champ” is just that. It’s a stunning new book about one of America’s most iconic athletes and colorful intellects. The book, comprising numerous never-before-published photographs of Muhammad Ali, spans his life from age 12 and ends with his funeral at age 74. He would have been 77 today, Jan. 17.

One set of photographs, in particular, was most interesting to me, as a photographer and someone who grew up in South Florida — Ali in Miami, in 1971.

The photos were taken by the late Larry Spitzer of the Louisville Courier-Journal, Ali’s hometown newspaper. These photos were particularly amazing because of the openness and trust Ali showed Spitzer, in even the quietest personal moments.

Full disclosure: I’ve been close friends with the book’s publisher since the first week we met in college. It was September 1989, my first day at Western Kentucky University. I was in the journalism school and waiting, along with a few other students, to see the dean.

Enter Warren Winter. He was from Iowa. Turns out, we both wanted to be globe-trotting photojournalists shooting the cover of Time magazine.

Decades later, Winter runs a publishing house in Chicago. Last year, during one of our frequent chats, he told me about a project on Ali that he was thinking about publishing. Winter had seen some images posted on the Courier-Journal’s social-media feed. He asked to see more, and then saw the potential.

Why does this matter to Miami? Nestled inside this treasure trove of rediscovered images of The Champ, is a whole set from Miami: Ali at Wolfie’s, a place where I spent so many hours of my childhood with my grandparents and a bowl of chicken soup; Ali crossing Washington Avenue; Ali chugging water from a taped-up bottle, bathed in the glow of sunlight coming through the front window of the 5th Street Gym.

These photos go back to a sleepier Miami Beach. It was the real thing, compared to what nostalgia-seeking crowds see today. The photographs were so compelling, in fact, that they merited their own chapter.

Then it hit me like a right cross: Let’s collaborate!

“Warren, I have an idea.”

The idea was simple: Go into the darkroom and hand-make a one-of-kind portfolio. These are not my photographs, although I treat them as if they are. These specific images were made by Spitzer and Jebb Harris, photojournalists for the Courier-Journal.

Soon I found myself in the familiar, meditative orange glow of the darkroom. There were about 26 rolls of film. When there are so few images, it makes the selection process critical. Two weeks later, I emerged from the darkroom with a portfolio of 20 photographs, which I named ALI/MIA.

Serendipity is a wonderful thing. Miami New Drama on Lincoln Road in Miami Beach was working on a stage production called “One Night in Miami,” about the night Ali won the title in 1964. The stars aligned. I showed the producers the photograph. It was as if a lightning bolt struck. The inaugural exhibition for the ALI/MIA opened in the lobby of the Colony Theatre.

By the time “One Night in Miami” had finished its run, the director, Olga C. Granda, was already in discussions with the managers of the Hampton House, in Overtown, where the drama takes place. The ALI/MIA exhibition is there now, with the set of the play.

It brings the project full circle, with Ali — and Miami — as the stars at its center.

You can see the ALI/MIA Portfolio, “Muhammad Ali at The Hampton House” through Jan 21. For more information see www.AndrewKaufman.net or www.cjbookproject.com. The project will relocate to the Betsy Hotel on Feb 1, expanded to include some of the most famous images of Ali, including the April ‘68 Esquire cover of Ali as Saint Sebastian the Martyr.