It is amazing what a chance meeting can lead to. Thirty years since Muhammad Ali won his third and final World Heavyweight Championship, an exhibition of intimate images taken by Sonia Katchian shows the American boxer in his daily life. Ali is at home hugging his children from his second marriage in Chicago, in 1980; working on a heavy bag in Zaire in 1974; riding a horse past his private cabin in Deer Lake, Pennsylvania, in 1974; snoozing on board a flight to Detroit to cope with his fear of flying in 1974; even on the phone at his desk at his LA mansion in 1981.
Katchian began following Ali all over the world "whenever I found good enough reason to," she says, after a chance meeting in Manhattan in 1974, when they were shopping in the same store. "I was looking at scarves when my sister indicated to me that Muhammad Ali had just walked into the store and she forced me to go and photograph him... I was blown away by his beautiful, deep and gentle voice. He took the time to write down the address of his training camp in Deer Park, Pennsylvania, where he said I could photograph him. He instantly became more than a boxer to me," says Katchian.
The political and celebrity photographer had found herself at the top of the heap at the beginning of her career. "I'm particularly fond of the photograph taken in the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. You can only see his back in the ring and he looks as if he is floating. Another favourite, taken at the same time, shows him skipping rope but you can only see his feet. This is the image he signed for me along with the words 'the greatest photographer in the world'."
What is the man behind the boxing gloves really like? "I hope that the pictures convey what I can't convey in words. He emanates love in a way that I have not seen in any other human being, which is not portrayed in newsreel-type photos."
14 March to 11 May (020-7839 4942); special-edition prints for the Ali Folio can be seen at www.alifolio.com
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