Lew Alcindor, basketball player, 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York, May 2, 1963 Richard Avedon’s black and white photograph shows Lew Alcindor, a high school basketball star, as self-confident and physically powerful. Alcindor, who later changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, went on to become the National Basketball Association’s leading scorer and winner of six championships.
This photograph embodies the stories of two superstars—artist and athlete—in their own professions, and addresses an era that embraced the civil rights movement, fashion photography, and the idea of sports star as superhero.
Richard Avedon American 1923-2004 Lew Alcindor, basketball player, 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York, May 2, 1963 1963 (printed 1990) Gelatin silver print The Alfred and Ingrid Lenz Harrison Purchase Fund and gift of The Richard Avedon Foundation ©The Richard Avedon Foundation
Both Richard Avedon, the photographer, and Lew Alcindor, better known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, were superstars in their chosen professions. Both also dedicated themselves to the cause of civil rights.
Richard Avedon was one of the world’s most famous fashion and art photographers from the late 1940s into the 21st century. During the early 1960s, he traveled through the southern United States photographing participants in the American Civil Rights Movement. He took pictures of African American leaders such as Malcolm X, and movement opponents like George Wallace, governor of Alabama, for a book he called Nothing Personal, a collaboration with James Baldwin, the novelist, playwright, poet, and civil rights activist.
Avedon’s photographs often present political or ethical positions. And, despite opposition from others in the fashion business, Avedon chose and photographed the first non-white model, China Machado, to appear in a fashion magazine. He later championed Donyale Lewis as the first black super model.
Lew Alcindor, already known to sports insiders when Avedon shot this picture, finished his high school career with 79 wins and only two losses. An A-student, he also studied black history and learned about his own family’s African heritage. In 1971, Alcindor converted to Islam and changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
By the time he retired from professional basketball in 1989, Abdul-Jabbar was the NBA’s leading scorer and winner of six championships. His accomplishments on the court are legendary.
Abdul-Jabbar is also an educator and best-selling author. He has written many books about black history, including On the Shoulder of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, co-authored with Raymond Obstfeld, and Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII's Forgotten Heroes, with Anthony Walton.
Photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt made this portrait of the world-famous photographer Richard Avedon in 1963. Alfred Eisenstaedt, Portrait of Photographer Richard Avedon, 01 January 1963, Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
President Dwight D. Eisenhower was among the famous people Avedon photographed for the book Nothing Personal, on which he collaborated with writer and activist James Baldwin. Richard Avedon, Dwight David Eisenhower, President of the United States, 1965, gelatin silver print (printed 1970), The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund. ©The Richard Avedon Foundation
This photo shows Lew Alcindor in action as a player for University of California, Los Angeles, in 1967. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection
Pictures tell stories. Photographers, including Richard Avedon, make many choices in order to present their subjects as they want viewers to see them. Avedon recalled that as a boy his family planned all of their snapshots; they dressed up, posed in front of expensive cars and other people’s homes, and even borrowed dogs to present the family as it wanted to be seen. They role-played for the photographs.
What words would you use to describe Lew Alcindor, a high school basketball player when this photograph was made in 1963? What do you see in the picture that brings those words to mind? This now-famous picture by world-famous photographer Richard Avedon has been interpreted in many different ways by art critics and others.
Does the knowledge that the photograph was taken by a famous fashion photographer change how you describe it? If so, in what ways? Though photographed in 1963, the picture first appeared in a fashion magazine filled with other photos by Avedon in 1965. In what ways is Avedon’s picture of Lew Alcindor like images of fashion models?
Avedon posed the young Alcindor on a basketball court in an urban environment. The photograph’s title locates the scene at 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue in New York, then the address to Alcindor’s high school, Power Memorial Academy. How does Avedon’s decision to set the portrait in this urban environment influence the way you interpret or think about the photograph?
The settings for Avedon’s fashion portraits are often as captivating as the models. Richard Avedon, Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1965, gelatin silver print (printed 1979), The William Hood Dunwoody Fund and purchase through Art Quest 2001. ©The Richard Avedon Foundation
In his portraits Avedon wanted to capture something about each person that he or she was not trying to show. This portrait of actress Marilyn Monroe is famous because it shows her when she had stopped posing for the camera. Richard Avedon, Marilyn Monroe, Actress, May 6, 1957, gelatin silver print (printed 1970), The Christina N. and Swan J. Turnblad Memorial Fund. © 2008 The Richard Avedon Foundation
Avedon’s photograph of Lew Alcindor appeared in this spread in the April 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
Think about the various places you see sports images every day. What makes a sports image a work of art? Many photographers of the 20th and 21st centuries have captured the drama of sports and created iconic images of sports superstars.
Photographer Richard Avedon made artistic choices to emphasize that Lew Alcindor was not an ordinary high school student. He positioned his camera well below the tall, athletic Alcindor to emphasize his height. By posing Alcindor palming the basketball (a difficult feat for most people), and with his right knee bent and his right arm extended, he showed off the extraordinary length and muscularity of the young man’s arms and legs. He is self-confident. He dominates the court. He appears almost super-human.
According to a Newsweek magazine feature on Avedon in 1993, the photographer was taking a cab down the west side of Manhattan and spotted Alcindor in the schoolyard. As the story goes, it was only after photographing Alcindor that Avedon learned that sports insiders had already discovered the phenom. The photograph, however, suggests he was fully aware of the Power Memorial Academy student’s superstar status.
The photograph first appeared in print nearly two years later, in the April 1965 “What’s Happening” issue of the fashion and style magazine Harper’s Bazaar. The entire issue featured photographs by Avedon; Lew Alcindor was pictured and heralded as “what’s about to happen in basketball.” In fact, however, he was already “happening”—in his senior year, Alcindor averaged 33 points per game, and led his team to win the New York City Catholic High School championship.
Since ancient times, artists have represented athletes as extraordinary. The pose of this ancient spear thrower was innovative in its day for showing the body at rest and in motion at the same time. Roman, The Doryphoros, 120?50 BCE, Pentelic marble, The John R. Van Derlip Fund and Gift of funds from Bruce B. Dayton, an anonymous donor, Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Dayton, Mr. and Mrs. W. John Driscoll, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Harrison, Mr. and Mrs. John Andrus, Mr. and Mrs. Judson Dayton, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Keating, Mr. and Mrs. Pierce McNally, Mr. and Mrs. Donald Dayton, Mr. and Mrs. Wayne MacFarlane, and many other generous friends of the Institute
This detail of Alcindor’s expression reveals his self-confidence. During his sophomore year when the photo was taken, he averaged 19 points per game, leading Power Memorial’s team to 27 straight victories. He was also an A-student.
Lew Alcindor, better known today as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, kept the number 33 throughout his career.
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Search magazines or sports Web sites (e.g. https://www.si.com/, or www.nba.com) for photographs of athletes that appear to be influenced by contemporary fashion photography. Search fashion Web sites for images you think are influenced by sports photography. Select an example of each to compare and contrast in a written essay or multi-media presentation.
Create a photograph of a friend, family member, or team member that shows viewers something about that person’s personality, interests, or strengths. Collaborate with your classmates to create a photo exhibition in your classroom, or online for the world to see.
Explore photographer Wing Young Huie’s Web site to learn how many of his photographic projects document the socioeconomic and cultural realities of American society, much of it centered on the urban cores of his home state of Minnesota.
Visit the Minneapolis Institute of Art for a discussion-based tour on just about any topic, including sports or fashion. Click here to get a tour request form.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar created a documentary, “On the Shoulders of Giants: The Story of the Greatest Basketball Team You Never Heard Of,” which tells the story of the Harlem Rens team. Research the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and 1930s, a period of intense literary, musical, and intellectual creativity associated with Harlem, a predominately African American neighborhood in New York City. In small groups, develop an outline and storyboards for a documentary about an individual or group of people (e.g., writers, artists, athletes) who were part of the Harlem Renaissance.
Click here to view a video showing Lew Alcindor and other members of the 1963 All-American High School Basketball Team in a television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in March 1963, about two months before the photograph was taken. In writing or conversation compare and contrast Alcindor's appearance on television with the way Avedon presented him in the photograph.