Peter Angelo Simon’s new book: Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974

Book cover Muhammad Ali Fighter's Heaven 1974, (Reel Art Press, 2016)
Book cover Muhammad Ali Fighter’s Heaven 1974, (Reel Art Press, 2016)
Shortly before he died last year, Harold had been working on a blog post about the work of his dear friend and former student, Peter Angelo Simon. With the recent release of Peter’s acclaimed new book Muhammad Ali: Fighter’s Heaven 1974 (Reel Art Press, 2016) and the demise of the great fighter, I’m glad to be getting back to the completion of this post. Below are Peter’s words on the Ali project and a few memories of studying with Harold. The post ends with Harold’s words about Peter dictated to me shortly before he passed.

Harold Feinstein and Peter Angelo Simon, Brooklyn, 2008 ©Peter Angelo Simon
Harold Feinstein and Peter Angelo Simon, Brooklyn, 2008 ©Peter Angelo Simon

I can still feel the exhilaration upon walking into Harold’s West Philadelphia apartment a half century ago in the mid-60’s. Pinned up on white panels around the room were Harold’s black and white prints, dazzlingly well rendered richly detailed human moments. At the time I was successfully disguised to myself as a writer of public affairs documentaries for television. Harold’s pictures, teaching, and his passionate view of photography as a high and joyous calling inflamed my latent visual nature and set me on a path that became central to my work, my life and my happiness.

By August 1974 I had become a photographer. A magazine assignment took me to Muhammad Ali’s Fighter’s Heaven – his rural Pennsylvania training camp – at a crucial moment in his life. Here was the most famous person on the planet barely a month away from the pivotal fight in Zaire to regain the World Heavyweight Boxing Championship title that had been stripped from him when he refused the Vietnam Draft.

Ali’s daily five mile training run began at dawn. There was no one around as he jogged through the Pennsylvania farm country. In the middle of nowhere he gave a victory salute.  I feel certain he gave himself such triumphal salutes when there was no one around to record them. © Peter Angelo Simon
Ali’s daily five mile training run began at dawn. There was no one around as he jogged through the Pennsylvania farm country. In the middle of nowhere he gave a victory salute. I feel certain he gave himself such triumphal salutes when there was no one around to record them. © Peter Angelo Simon

At the time groundbreaking filmmakers were committed to witnessing and recording the flow of life while influencing it as little as possible. They yearned to catch the feeling of being there and to capture historic activities and behavior raw. This was my approach to the opportunity to photograph Muhammad Ali. At 4:30 in the morning Ali’s manager called through my motel door “Grab your pants and your camera, the champ is running”. My first photograph shows Ali jogging on a country road toward the blast of the rising sun.

Still without breakfast, Ali rests after the exertion of his dawn run. He called his Deer Lake, Pennsylvania camp “Fighter’s Heaven” and said it was the best camp a fighter ever had.  He had specified that the camp’s buildings be made of logs to give the place the old -time atmosphere he enjoyed. © Peter Angelo Simon, 1974
Still without breakfast, Ali rests after the exertion of his dawn run. He called his Deer Lake, Pennsylvania camp “Fighter’s Heaven” and said it was the best camp a fighter ever had. He had specified that the camp’s buildings be made of logs to give the place the old -time atmosphere he enjoyed. © Peter Angelo Simon, 1974

© Peter Angelo Simon
© Peter Angelo Simon
I was photographing Ali cooling down from his five mile run when he said “Get this”. He pulled up his sweatshirt and liner and sweat poured out. In this moment I realized that Ali understood I was truly interested in the reality of his preparation for the dangerous fight. An unspoken agreement governed the next two days: Ali did his thing and I did mine.

Filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker wrote the forward to my book. I treasure his first line, “People with cameras lead peculiar and magical lives.”

Ali’s team turned an exhibition match at a local high school into a big event, complete with school children parading ahead of him and a grand entrance into the school gym. What I love about this picture is everybody’s joy and excitement; the smiling, clapping, taking photographs. It’s Muhammad Ali! And even as he is the focus of the entire group’s attention he reaches out to make contact with it. © Peter Angelo Simon
Ali’s team turned an exhibition match at a local high school into a big event, complete with school children parading ahead of him and a grand entrance into the school gym. What I love about this picture is everybody’s joy and excitement; the smiling, clapping, taking photographs. It’s Muhammad Ali! And even as he is the focus of the entire group’s attention he reaches out to make contact with it. © Peter Angelo Simon

Harold’s words about Peter:

My fondest memories of Peter are the hilarious laughter we both engaged in about one subject or another. He was and will always be a dear friend of mine. He has always had an imaginative inner vision that has been shown through his many different chapters as a photographer. He has never stopped being excited by new concepts that he then goes about gleefully narrating in photographs. This can be seen in his many different styles and subjects. He has a curious eye that takes the viewer on a journey they weren’t expecting and allows people to see things in a new way. Certainly, Muhammad Ali has never been shown in the way Peter has shown him. Peter reveals the power of the every day moments of a great star behind the scenes doing what he needs to do to prepare for a big fight. Peter is a brilliant photographer who has never gotten the recognition he so ably deserves — although I know that will be rectified as time goes by.

PLEASE NOTE: IF YOU LIVE IN NEW YORK CITY, PETER WILL BE DOING A PRESENTATION AT THE MID-MANHATAN LIBRARY ON MONDAY DEC 12 AT 6:30. HE’LL SHOW MANY IMAGES FROM THE BOOK AND DISCUSS THE EXPERIENCE OF PHOTOGRAPHING ALI AT HIS RURAL PENNSYLVANIA TRAINING SANCTUARY IN AUGUST 1974 JUST PRIOR TO THE “RUMBLE IN THE JUNGLE IN ZAIRE. MORE INFORMATION HERE.

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