Wednesday, April 14, 2021


© Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

By José Manuel Serrano Esparza

August of 1966. Twenty years before entering Magnum Agency, the German photographer Thomas Hoepker is in Chicago (United States) to photograph Muhammad Ali, boxing world heavy weight champion, in an assignment for Stern magazine.

Hoepker had got his first pictures of him six years before during the 1960 Olympic Games, when his name was Cassius Clay and being only eighteen years old took his starting steps on the international stage, becoming an instant sensation in the light heavyweight category after defeating much more experienced boxers than him like the Russian Gennady Shatkov, the Canadian Tony Madigan and the Polish Zbigniew Pietrzykowski, winning the Olympic title.

© jmse

But now the photographic challenge for Thomas Hoepker in the Illinois State capital is much more important.

Muhammad Ali has been the undisputed boxing heavyweight champion of the world for two years, after beating Sony Liston on February 26, 1964 at the Miami Beach Convention Hall.

Following it, Cassius Clay has changed his name to Muhammad Ali and has successfully defended his title against Floyd Patterson (Las Vegas Convention Center on November 22, 1965), George Chuvalo (Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto on March 29, 1966), Henry Cooper (Arsenal Football Stadium London on May 21, 1966) and Brian London one week before also in the British capital.

© jmse

Thomas Hoepker doesn´t know anything about boxing but right off the bat he does realize that this is a once in a lifetime chance, since Muhammad Ali arrival at the boxing scope has meant to all intents and purposes a revolution in this sport, because of a number of reasons:

a) Ali´s boxing style and attitude on the ring is utterly different to everything known hitherto, with incredible speed of movements and blows, and he has got a remarkable insight to use its fists with devastating effect during the key instants of every bout.

As a matter of fact, though he is the heavyweight champion of the world, he is faster than the best Superwelter world champion boxers of the time.

In addition, his defense is amazing, and most times he avoids being hit by his opponents through swift movements of his body, to such an extent that it´s exceedingly difficult to knock him out.

b) His physical condition is superb. He works out to exhaustion every day inside gym, running many kilometers and doing a wide range of physical activities. This way, he preserves virtually the same stamina on the ring from beginning to end of every contest.

c) Unlike what´s usual in such a tough sport like this in which vast majority of boxers show signs of impacts in fights on their countenances, Muhammad Ali´s face appears immaculate, without any trace of blows, because his outstanding technique enables him to remain almost untouched once and again.

d) Unlike most heavy weight champions featuring a hard man profile, Muhammad Ali could pass as a cinema actor. He´s handsome, very athletic, charming, flamboyant, wearing elegant attire, boasting a unique personality, steadily proclaiming that he is the best boxer ever seen and his famous statement " I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee ", in the midst of a maelstrom of changing moods.

From a photographic viewpoint this is a very interesting person and a great chance to strive upon unfolding his most significant traits through images.

This way, Thomas Hoepker begins following Muhammad Ali all over Chicago while he walks across the streets, trains inside the gym, runs long distances to be as fit as feasible, poses both with friends and performing boxing movements and blows, etc.

© jmse

The German photographer makes him very good pictures, some of them standing and jumping on a bridge overlooking the Chicago river and the city´s skyline, shooting at f/11 with his Leica MP-88 rangefinder camera coupled to a 35 mm wideangle lens and getting extensive depth of field, rendering the main skyscrapers and factory chimneys visible in the background with outstanding sharpness.

But the magical moment arrives a few days later, during the evening, when Muhammad Ali is inside a gym training hard.

Thomas Hoepker is near him, but light conditions are rather subdued and he thinks he won´t be able to get any good photograph.

Suddenly, Muhammad Ali spontaneously approaches him looking at the camera and begins to deliver blows in the air as if fighting against a rival boxer.

Very quickly, Hoepker, who has got his 24 x 36 mm format

Leica MP-88 camera with Leicavit MP from 1957 used by Thomas Hoepker to get the iconic picture of Muhammad Ali inside a gym of Chicago (United States) in 1966. It was often used by the German photographer until 1990 and it was overhauled in 2006 by the world-class Leica Master Technician Ottmar Michaely. This camera is an evolution of the Leica M3 (the best rangefinder ever made both in analogue and digital eras, with its exceptionally bright and brilliant 0.92x magnification viewfinder, virtually unbeatable when combined with 50 mm highly luminous lenses and featuring an amazingly short lag of 17 milliseconds between the moment in which the shutter release button is pressed and the beginning of the exposure). Therefore, differences between a Leica M3 and a Leica MP are few : a film advance mechanism including a longer shaft, the Leicavit accessory for rapid advance attached to the camera body, the lack of self-timer and the exposure counter that has to be manually reset by the photographer and a film advance gear made with stainless-steel instead of brass to endure the fast winding action of the Leicavit. 
© Westlicht Photographica Auction, currently named Leitz Photographica Auction.

Leica MP-88 camera with Leicavit MP and loaded with Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film, selects the f/2 aperture of the non aspherical

© jmse

7 elements in 5 groups Leitz Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 wideangle lens with Ollux shade 1st version attached to it and shoots from a very near distance, focusing on Ali´s clenched fists, fastly using

Leicavit MP fast winder. This utterly mechanical device enabled the professional photographers to shoot at rates of 2 frames/second without needing any battery. In the image appears an original unit in very good condition. 
© Leica Camera AG

the Leicavit rapid advance lever, managing to create three images, one of the right fist (number 9A of the 35 mm contact sheet) and two of the left one (numbers 8A and the underexposed 10A).

Everything happens in a very fast way, and suddenly, Muhammad Ali comes back to keep on exercising on the punching bag.

The best picture has been the frame 9A and a few years later it turns into an iconic image often appearing in sporting magazines, book covers, photographic galleries, photo auctions and so forth.


© Thomas Hoepker / Magnum Photos

Thomas Hoepker managed to get an exceedingly representative picture, highlighting Muhammad Ali´s right fist as main tool of his trade, using the f/2 aperture of the Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 wideangle lens coupled to his Leica MP camera.

Obviously, the most important ingredients for the creation of this image were by far the previous toil of the German photographer following the famous boxer everywhere (establishing a not easy to attain rapport with him, sometimes extremely friendly and funny and other times as days went by, and subsequently photographing the boxing heavyweight champion of the world in a number of different locations and hours of the days, both alone and with his entourage of relatives and acquaintances), the choice of a vertical framing and Hoepker´s quickness of movements and remarkable speed shooting to get the picture.

But it isn´t less true that this photograph is hugely interesting from the vewpoint of its fabulous overall vintage image aesthetics, its stunning level of detail on the focused right fist area yielded at f/2 and the very beautiful bokeh in Muhammad Ali´s out of focused face, right shoulder and arm, right side, abdominal areas and upper trunks.

The eminent German optical designer Walter Mandler was instrumental in the enhancement of photojournalism, with new 35 mm wideangle lenses that replaced the classic standard 50 mm lens as mainstay objective to generate picture essays) during late fifties and sixties, creating such non aspherical first-class lenses like the 8 elements in 6 groups Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 1st Version, the 6 elements Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 second version (1969-1971), the Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 third version and the 7 elements in 5 groups Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 (1960-1995). 
© Leica Camera AG

It all stems from the tremendous optical prowess, know-how and visual culture of Walter Mandler, the legendary German optical designer at Ernst Leitz Midland Ontario Canada, creator in 1960 of the non aspherical tiny Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 1st version lens used by Thomas Hoepker attached to his Leica MP-88 camera with an external viewfinder on its hotshoe.

This is an extraordinary lens, even to modern standards with widespread aspherical lenses, and sports tiny size (37.4 mm length x 52 mm maximum diameter) and very low weight (245 g) for its big aperture, an exceptional correction of distortion, along with a wisely preserved degree of spherical aberration and coma to get very beautiful bokeh at f/2 and f/2.8 in synergy with the 10 blade diaphragm, resulting in a global gorgeous dreamy signature (visible in Muhammad Ali´s image) at the widest apertures, while getting superb resolving power and contrast on being stopped down between f/4 and f/11.

Anyway, Mandler´s designing wizardry has managed to achieve with this wideangle lens very high marks regarding resolving power and contrast at f/2, as proved by the lavish level of detail on Ali´s right fist.

© jmse

Needless to say that the mechanical level of excellence of this lens is second to none, even nowadays, almost sixty years after its inception, with the typical brass focusing helicoids and widespread use of chromed brass and black anodized aluminium of the period, without forgetting the painstaking grinding and polishing of lens elements fulfilled by optical technician Ernst Haseneier, the top-notch coating of the surfaces of lens elements by Ernst Pausch, and the lens mount assemblies made by Hans Karl Wiese.

But there´s a further fundamental ingredient in this iconic image of Muhammad Ali created by Thomas Hoepker:

Kodak Tri-X 400, the most important film in the history of photojournalism, featuring a visible but aesthetically gorgeous grain and designed to give well defined edges to the subject outlines and detail. 
© jmse 
the use of the highly versatile Kodak Tri-X 400 black and white film, whose symbiosis with Mandler´s Summilux-M 35 mm f/1.4 lens is fantastic.

This b & w chemical emulsion features a very wide exposure latitude, great tonal range and formidable acutance visible in the visual perception of sharpness apparent in Muhammad Ali´s picture, not only in the focused right fist but also in the contours of out of focused Ali´s body areas, discernible for any observer thanks to the relevance of Mackie lines.

© jmse

May 23, 2014. " 100 Years of Leica  " Westlicht Photo Auction " at Leitz Park Main Building in Wetzlar. Instant in which a 27.5 x 20.8 cm vintage silver print of the iconic picture Muhammad Ali by Thomas Hoepker, signed by the German photographer, reaches a hammer price of 16,000 euros.

This powerful image created by Thomas Hoepker was decisive in the international knowledge of the figure of the person who has been for most experts the greatest sportsman in the history of sport along with Michael Jordan, being named Fighter of the Year Six Times by The Ring magazine, the greatest athlete of XX Century by Sports Illustrated magazine and Sports Personality of the Century by the BBC, as well as having taken part in the historic " Fight of the Century " for the WBC and WBA titles against Joe Frazier on March 8, 1971 at the Madison Square Garden of New York, which had a TV audience of one thousand million viewers, with live attendees like Frank Sinatra (working for Life magazine and holding a Nikon F Photomic FN camera with a single coated 7 elements in 5 groups Nikkor-S Auto 50 mm f/1.4, HS-1 metal shade and F36 motordrive very near the ring), Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr, Norman Mailer, Woody Allen, Jerry Lewis and other famous personalities of music, sport, arts, politics, etc

© jmse

Thomas Hoepker posing with his Leica M9-P 24 x 36 mm format digital rangefinder camera coupled to a 7 elements (one of them aspherical) in 5 groups Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 ASPH Silver Chrome lens.

© jmse

Thomas Hoepker, legendary photographer of Magnum Agency, getting pictures with his Leica M9-P and Summicron-M 35 mm f/2 ASPH Silver Chrome.

The German photographer was one of the first foremost professional photographers grasping the flawless analogue/digital transition which meant the launching into market of the Leica M9 full frame digital rangefinder camera (first 24 x 36 mm format digital camera in history) and the subsequent introduction of further models like the Leica M9-P, Leica M Monochrom, Leica M Typ 240 and the present flagships: the Leica M10, M10-P and M10-R.

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