His Eyes Saw the Prize Early
Saturday, May 17, 2008
During his long career as a photographer, Flip Schulke covered wars, presidents, rocket launches and the great human drama of the civil rights movement in the American South. But people always asked about one picture in particular: Muhammad Ali standing underwater.
How did he manage to take this remarkable image of the young Ali, sleek and young and powerful, with his fists cocked and eyes wide open, on the bottom of a swimming pool?
The picture was taken in August 1961, when Ali was a young, relatively unknown boxer in Miami named Cassius Clay. Strangely, Life magazine didn't include the image with other photos of Ali in the pool, but in recent years it's become something of a symbol of the ever-buoyant Ali and his seemingly magical powers.
It also shows Graeme Phelps Schulke -- Flip to everyone he knew -- was always a step ahead of everyone else when it came to getting the right picture.
Flip died Thursday in West Palm Beach, Fla., at 77, and if you don't know his name, you know the pictures that came from his camera. For years, he was a freelance photographer for Life and Look magazines, when they were on everyone's coffee tables, and he went all over the world on assignment for Sports Illustrated, National Geographic and magazines from Europe.
He made his name as a chronicler of racial turmoil in the South and the life of his friend Martin Luther King Jr. He photographed famous figures wherever he found them, from Elvis Presley during a stage rehearsal, to Fidel Castro giving his first speech in Havana in 1959. He won every prize in journalism except the Pulitzer, only because he never worked for a newspaper, and was a pioneer of underwater photography. He invented underwater lenses and learned his lighting techniques from none other than Jacques Cousteau.
In 1961, when he met the young Ali at a hotel in Miami, Ali mentioned that he trained in a pool because the water resistance improved his punching power. Flip, excited to shoot underwater, put on his scuba gear and shot some photos of Ali in action.
More than two years later, Flip returned for another photo shoot with Ali. They leafed through the Life magazine with underwater shots, and Ali started to chuckle.
"I really got you with that one," he said.
It turns out that Ali didn't know how to swim and had never spent a day training in a pool.
"It was all something he dreamed up because he knew I was into underwater photography," Flip told me years later. "Imagine that, to have that presence of mind when he was only 19 years old! He really had me."
Flip loved to laugh, especially about himself, but he could also be cranky, opinionated, sometimes hard to deal with -- he was married and divorced four times, after all. But he was never less than an inspiration to journalists.