Al Satterwhite's photos of Ali and Arnold recall a different
era in photojournalism
Ali in his limo in Miami Beach, early '70s.
I shared air space with Al Satterwhite for about 10 minutes
back in the summer of 1974. We were standing in the photo department of thePalm
Beach Post. He was on his way out, on to grand and glorious things in
California. I was just arriving from a newspaper that had folded up north, long
before that kind of thing became fashionable. I was catching up with some of my
photographer friends from that paper who had also landed at the Post.
So there was Al, on his way out the door. I said hello, we
talked a few minutes and then he was gone. Some of his friends in the photo
department didn't know how he was going to do it, away from the safety net of a
newspaper and its regular paychecks. (I know -- it was a different era.)
Next thing I knew, his name was attached to those wonderful
pictures illustrating the Playboy interview with Hunter S. Thompson
in November 1974.
Al did all right. That's a little like saying that Brando
kid did OK in the movies.
Satterwhite's from Tampa Bay, graduated from Boca Ciega
High, and worked for the St. Petersburg Times while still a teenager.
He spent a year as Gov. Claude Kirk's personal photographer ("A fun guy,
from my point of view," Satterwhite says), and did time at some of the
country's finest public universities. "I was skipping around the country,
trying out different colleges," he explains. After a tour of duty in Palm
Beach, he headed west. "I was dirt poor," he says, "but happy to
be back shooting real pictures again."
He's spent the intervening decades recording the life of
California, New York and (lately) Texas. He's lived a little bit of everywhere
("Been a gypsy," he says) and done a little bit of everything. He's
been a filmmaker recently, but every now and then he takes a look back on his
photojournalism and shares the results with us.
His latest production is a book big enough to be its own
coffeetable. And that's appropriate, considering the larger-than-life subjects.
Titans (Dalton Watson Fine Books, $89) showcases
Satterwhite's brilliant black-and-white chronicles of Muhammad Ali and Arnold
Schwarzenegger in their prime. Rarely has Ali looked more beautiful, a pure
product of America. And here is pre-public-servant Arnold, young and innocent.
(OK, at least young.)
Satterwhite shot Ali in 1971 during his South Florida days,
as Ali prepared for his knockdown dragout with Joe Frazier. He came across a
young Arnold five years later, while the future movie star and governor worked
out at Gold's Gym in Southern California, preparing for the film career that
all the best minds of his generation figured would never happen.
We learn a lot about these two ... well, titans ... from
these huge images. Today, of course, we have prying cameras that fit on our
pinky fingers and we can see just about anyone up close and personal. Read
Perez Hilton or any of the other gossip sites, and you can find pictures of
celebrities' nasal hair.
But rarely have you seen pictures as intimate as these
images of Ali and Arnold. These photographs reveal their souls. Most of us say
we want to take a picture. But all of the great photographers I've
worked with have always said, as they approach their subjects,
"Let's make a picture." So with Ali and Arnold, Satterwhite
was blessed with great collaborators.
Mostly, Titans makes us nostalgic for the kind of
photojournalism that's sort of hard to find nowadays. I know, we have
slideshows and lots of quick-cut dissolving images online. But it's hard to
find pictures this strong that stay with you.
Satterwhite has been in a reflective mood lately. He's moved
on to making films, but every now and then he dives into his archive to
assemble another book. Along the way, he made himself into one of the most
respected photographers both in news and advertising. His other-worldly art has
illustrated campaigns for American Express, Coca Cola, Honda and Universal
Pictures. He was dubbed a Nikon Legend, which is the photo equivalent of being
knighted by Queen Elizabeth.
So for decades, Satterwhite has been at the top of the photo
pyramid in journalism, advertising and film. He's published technical books (On
Colour and Design and Lights, Camera, Advertising) and has taken
earlier dives into his archive for Round Pictures and Racing ... the
Looking through his online galleries, you can see he's just
begun to tap his files. In addition to his thrilling racing pictures, he's
created a heart-breaking series of life in the South during the '60s and '70s.
For the celebrity lovers among you, his portraits of actors, musicians and
writers are definitive and iconic: Mel Brooks in full-court clown press; Burt
Reynolds in his Smokey and the Bandit glory days; John Wayne near the
end, and Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in their racing uniforms.
Do people still take pictures like this? If they do, their
work is probably buried online in some overwhelmed and hard-to-find Web site in
this information-choked culture. A computer screen is static, and so much
passes through it that all power is bled from the screen. The technology takes
the edge off of everything, and the photos lose much of their power to startle.
"Photojournalism today seems to be in freefall,"
Satterwhite says. "Magazines are dropping like flies and nobody does
picture stories. Once People got cranking, it all
changed. Life was the bible in the '60s and into the '70s. Papers
like the [Palm Beach] Post ran whole special editions with picture
stories on migrant workers. It was amazing. Nobody does that anymore."
So two of the greatest things about journalism -- long works
of narrative non-fiction and strong picture stories -- are casualties of the
new media and a critical-list economy.
"Photography is in perilous times," Satterwhite
says. Still, he has hopes for new media. "I think new media is going to
morph into something, and it will be laptops and cell-phone delivery with
moving image." For a moment, he ponders the new equipment and how it's democratizing
the process of photojournalism. "I just don't know how all these
photographers are going to find work. Most aren't. The cameras have gotten so
good, even Ashton Kutcher can shoot pictures 'like a pro.' Now that a police
reporter can shoot his own pictures instead of sending out an expensive
photographer... the good old days are over. The new days are coming. People get
For now, we look forward to further plunges into
Satterwhite's archive, for another book with the staying power and resilience
Titans can be ordered online at daltonwatson.com.
Review from Creative Loafing.com