For his new exhibition, photographer Michael Brennan has brought together his greatest loves – boxing and music – and his images of everyone from John Lennon to Muhammad Ali TIME! SHOW
It is a warm September evening in Chelsea, southwest London. I am sat with photographer Michael Brennan outside Gordon Ramsay’s Maze restaurant, right next door to the Iconic Images Gallery, where he is holding an exhibition. I ask him about his upcoming flight to Costa Rica next morning, and it immediately sparks an anecdote. “I flew on a private jet with Led Zeppelin once, from Newark to Detroit,” he says. “Well, it was their private Boeing 720, known as The Starship, which had been customised to suit their needs. I remember being taken to the stateroom, which is where the band would hold court. It even had a working fireplace!
“I was with a journalist, heading to the sell-out show at Detroit Olympia Stadium. Robert Plant, John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page were friendly, but cautious, as the band weren’t fond of the press, and John Bonham, the drummer, only joined us for a few pics. But the concert itself was
amazing, and I was given free access to go anywhere. At one point I was stood with Jimmy Page while a fan in the audience tried to hand him a drink!” Incredible images from the flight and the concert, part of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 tour across North America, hang on the walls of the gallery just a few metres away. In one, there appears to be barely any distance between the audience and the stage, as Jimmy Page leans back under the spotlight, guitar in hand. Next to it are Brennan’s images of other music icons, including John Lennon, Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger and Debbie Harry. Then, further on, we jump into the world of boxing, featuring Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson. One particular shot of Ali, looking up during training, his face covered in sweat, hangs in the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC. Pointing this out leads to another anecdote.
“I took that in 1977 up at Deer Lake in Pennsylvania, where Ali had his training camp,” Brennan reveals. “It was 12 days
before he was due to fight Earnie Shavers at New York’s Madison Square Garden. Three sparring partners had been selected for their similarity in size, strength and fighting style to Ali’s opponent. The gym was uncomfortably hot, and Ali’s strenuous workout left him exhausted. He ripped off his headguard and leaned with his head cradled in his arms.
“At that moment, an ABC TV cameraman flooded the scene with a bright, piercing light from over my left shoulder. Ali looked up, and at that point I raised my Nikon F2, with the focus racked as close as possible, and the bright strobe and some daylight creeping in. That’s what made the shot. “Some years later, I showed the image to Ali. It was just before his final fight against Trevor Berbick in 1981, the so-called Drama in Bahama. He wasn’t the same fighter then, and should have stopped years ago, which I think he knew. And there he was, looking at this image, tracing his right index finger over the sweat beads and mumbling, ‘All them years, all them years of hard work.’” It comes as no surprise that Brennan
‘Ali would always come out and do something for the camera, and I’d sell the picture to keep me going for a month
has called his exhibition, very simply, Boxers and Rockers. Brennan admits that it was not his choice to focus on boxing or music in particular, it was just that he was a freelance photographer, having moved to New York from the UK in the early 1970s, and these were the subjects in demand by the British press. “If bands from back home toured the States, I’d get the call, but also Muhammad Ali was very popular in the UK,” he says. “I’d already worked as a photographer for the British tabloids and won awards, but in the US boxing and music became my focus.” Brennan laughs slightly, recalling the stress he would endure after every shoot, getting back home, processing his film and sending it to the UK to meet deadlines, bearing in mind that in New York he was already losing five hours due to the time difference. It meant there was limited time for filing negatives or organising prints, and as a result some of his work has been lost, he believes, indefinitely. “It was always about getting the photos off and onto the next job,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about an exhibition I might have in the future!” One shoot missing is his first with Muhammad Ali. “It was in 1973, up at Deer Lake, and he’d just lost to Ken Norton – which went the distance, but Norton won on a split decision,” Brennan recalls. “Ali was a bit grumpy, and also mischievous. He wanted to do something spectacular for the photos. He told me, ‘I’m going to cut down a tree.’ So he took his shirt off, and started chopping this tree. I was so busy taking the photos, I didn’t notice the tree coming down towards me – it missed me by a tiny amount!”
‘Lennon and I made up lyrics about drinking tea and sang them to the theme tune of Housewives’ Choice. I remember thinking, this is a bit surreal
Opening pages: Debbie Harry © Michael Brennan Previous pages: Muhammed Ali rests during a sparring session © Michael Brennan Left: John Lennon © Michael Brennan Below: Mike Tyson reacts in the aftermath of his disqualification for biting © Michael Brennan
Brennan clearly has fond memories of Ali, amazed as much by the man himself as he was with his abilities in the ring. “He used to call me The Limey,” Brennan reveals. “If I was ever short of money and the rent was due, I’d get the bus to the training camp and knock on his door. He’d always come out and do something for the camera, and I’d sell the picture to keep me going for a month. “He was so much fun. I mean, he could be terrifying, but he was only having a laugh. One time he was playing with his German shepherd dog, and I told him, ‘Boy, you’re great for pictures.’ He said, ‘What? Did you just call me boy, or was it Roy?’ And he started chasing me.” There are other famous characters that stick in Brennan’s mind. “It was 1973, and I went to photograph John Lennon at a record producer’s house in Los Angeles – even though he was famous, it felt like he was still trying to figure it out,” he says. “We did a few shots, and then he invited me into the kitchen for a cup of ‘genuine’ English tea, as he described it.
I took photos of him drinking it, and we started talking about an old BBC radio programme called Housewives’ Choice. We made up lyrics about drinking tea and sang them to the theme tune of the show. I remember thinking, this is a bit surreal.” He also met the subject of the recent movie, Bohemian Rhapsody. “Queen were playing at Madison Square Garden in New York, and the journalist I was with suggested taking Freddie [Mercury] to an antiques store before the show,” says Brennan. “I took photos of him looking around, humble, quiet and polite – and yet a few hours later, he was the greatest, most incredible frontman in the world.”
And what of Mike Tyson? Brennan had such a fondness for Ali, what did he make of the man who took the boxing world by storm a few years after that final Berbick fight? “I’ve washed
the dishes with Mike Tyson, after my first meeting with him in 1985 and a Thanksgiving turkey,” he smiles. “But what a fighter. So intimidating. And like Ali, it all changed for him too. I remember being at the Evander Holyfield fight in 1997, with the famous ear-biting incident. Tyson got frustrated and lost it, and everything kicked off, the crowd were booing and the police stormed the ring – I got thrown over the side! But I managed to get a shot of Tyson from the back confronting the cops, and it made the front page of the New York Daily News.” These days, the knock-outs and rock-outs are no more, and Brennan prefers to spend his time at home with his wife and dogs in Costa Rica. “I love the people there, although my Spanish isn’t very good,” he laughs. “Putting my prints together keeps me half-busy. I hope they’re of interest to some people.” For more info, visit iconicimagesgallery.net