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Hanging the Witness 

Thursday, Nov 10 2005
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The westernmost end of world-famous Melrose Avenue is quiet and almost cloistered, its few blocks of terribly haute but homey boutiques and galleries making for a pleasant, if surreal, pause along the gilded border of Beverly Hills and West Hollywood. One of these spaces is the MB Fine Art Gallery just off Melrose, a place with a wide porch, white pillars and gray clapboard front reminiscent of a beach house in the Hamptons. On a recent Wednesday night, this temple of fine art was issuing a most unlikely music: Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Following the gospel strains to the back of the gallery, you found photographer Howard Bingham holding court, musing before an audience about the genesis of his current exhibition, “Witness,” a collection of photos documenting the people and places of the civil rights and black-power movements of the 1960s. Bingham, an L.A. native raised in South-Central and Compton, is known almost exclusively for being the personal photographer of boxing great Muhammad Ali — that iconic shot of a victorious Ali looming over a felled Sonny Liston is his — but this exhibit is something entirely different.

Well, not entirely: Ali figured prominently in the turmoil of the ’60s, and actually appears in a crowd scene, in a dark suit and sunglasses, in a photo of a 1967 anti-war protest. But the photos in “Witness” were still a departure for Bingham, a stepping out, and he cheerily admitted it. Bingham is cheery about most things; though his work is clear-eyed and unsentimental, it also reflects the spirit of a relentless optimist. The most sobering moments captured in the exhibit — Coretta Scott King kneeling at the casket of her slain husband, Black Panther regiments protesting against police brutality, a dazed, handcuffed black man peering out the back window of a black-and-white — convey hope through wide angles, brilliant sun, and close configurations of people at odds with one another that suggest they were closer to unity than they ever knew, or wanted to admit.

The crowd was appropriately diverse — dreadlocked artists, coifed middle managers at foundations or nonprofits, young students of latter-day movements, old flame keepers in and around their 60s, like Bingham. Roger Guenveur Smith, a fellow L.A. native and veteran actor, who played Huey Newton in an acclaimed one-man show some years back, was among the guests. Before the conversation with the artist, everyone wandered the two rooms of the exhibit with a mix of solemnity and affectionate recognition: After all, most of these shots were of home, from Sunset Boulevard to LAX, albeit during a time some had never experienced. And the artist, despite his renown, was one of us. Bingham certainly owes his worldview to his humble beginnings, his L.A.-rooted philosophy of making the most of what you have, and to the fact that he nabbed what he considers the greatest job imaginable through pure serendipity — he met Ali by accident in downtown L.A. in the late 1950s, when Bingham was scrounging up work at the Los Angeles Sentinel, the city’s black weekly. “I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he said more than once during the evening.

That became the theme of the night. During a PowerPoint slide show featuring highlights of the exhibit, Bingham was not most eager to show the crowd any photos in particular, but a copy of a report card from Compton College when he was a student there. “Look at that!” he exclaimed almost proudly at the proliferation of C’s and D’s. He had circled one grade to make sure no one missed it — an F, in none other than photography. Bingham smiled with a kind of satisfaction as the room cracked up.

“See there?” he said. “Proof that if I did it, anyone can.”

There was one work of his that visibly excited him: a series of three color shots of a little girl running alongside a motorcade bearing presidential hopeful Robert Kennedy in 1968. The scene in Watts unfolds kinetoscope-style, with the girl’s pigtails flying and a clearly tickled Kennedy and his entourage reaching out to grab her proffered hand. The moment is warm and humorous, a bright spot between the fierce unrest of Watts a few years before and the dark cloud of Kennedy’s assassination that lay ahead. “Watch that girl!” Bingham exclaimed, as if the image were alive, and redemptive. “See that? Look at her go!”

During a question-and-answer segment, one fan asked Bingham, who is widely traveled, what he regarded as his favorite or most inspiring place. Bingham didn’t bat an eye. “America,” he said. “It’s the greatest country in the world.”

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