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Muhammad Ali

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Neil Leifer’s 1965 photograph of Muhammad Ali hovering over a knocked-out Sonny Liston may be the most famous sports shot of all time, but you will not find it at “The Sports Show,” a photography and new-media exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. Nor will you find a single picture of the most famous athlete of the past 15 years, Tiger Woods, or of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team celebrating its miracle win, or of American soccer player Brandi Chastain ripping off her shirt after clinching the 1999 World Cup. Can you really mount a worthwhile retrospective of sports photography without these iconic athletes and moments? Turns out you can. In fact, “The Sports Show” (on view through May 13) is better off for it.

When I checked out the exhibit on opening day, I expected a greatest-hits compendium of sports images. But curator David Little took a more surprising approach, choosing photographs that offer more social commentary than celebration. For example, the circa-1899 portrait of female high school students playing basketball in dresses sends the message that women, too, could participate in emerging sports. (The picture was taken by Frances Benjamin Johnston, whom LIFE magazine once called “the closest thing to an official court photographer the United States has ever had.”) More than a century later, that message continues to resonate: Title IX has delivered athletic opportunities to millions of girls, but female athletes still fight for the same opportunities and recognition that boys get.

The exhibit casts a skeptical eye on the emotional energy we expend on sports. In 1970 photographer Tod Papageorge toured the country capturing fans at big events like the Iron Bowl (the Alabama-vs.-Auburn college-football rivalry) and opening day at Yankee Stadium. Some people in the crowd are goofing off, but many others appear pensive. The photographs invite the viewer to wonder what the spectators are thinking and feeling. Is their favorite team losing? Or are real-life stresses still on their minds? Papageorge bitingly called this project—a portion of which is on display in Minneapolis—American Sports, 1970, or How We Spent the War in Vietnam.

Read More: “Big Shots: The impact of sports on society, seen through the camera’s eye.”

The Sports Show is on view at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts now through May 13.

MORE: Check out TIME.com’s new sports blog: Keeping Score.

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Peter Hapak photographed the contenders for the women’s U.S. Olympic team for this week’s issue of TIME. The gallery above includes additional images of the fighters in action.

Boxing has always been an Olympic sport. The ancient Greeks wrapped their fists in leather strips in the 7th century B.C. In the modern Games, gold medals have launched the sport’s greatest figures: Floyd Patterson, Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman and Oscar De La Hoya all made their first appearance on the world stage with a victory in the Olympics.

This summer in London, the XXX Olympiad will present a historic debut. For the first time, female boxers will compete. It’s been 19 years since a teenage girl named Dallas Malloy went to U.S. federal court to win the right for women to participate in amateur boxing. Now Americans are fighting their way toward the first U.S. Olympic women’s boxing team. Just getting to London will be a tough fight. For these boxers, this Olympics is limited, a test run. Only 36 women in the world will be allowed to compete in three weight divisions: flyweight (112-lb. limit), lightweight (132 lb.) and middleweight (165 lb.). Meanwhile, some 250 men will box in 10 weight classes.

Men’s Olympic bouts last for three 3-min. rounds. The women’s bouts are four rounds of 2 min. each. Debate flared when the AIBA, the international organization governing amateur boxing, suggested women might be required to wear short skirts rather than trunks to make it easier to distinguish them from male boxers. After an uproar, the AIBA agreed that skirts will be optional.

The three women who won the U.S. Olympic boxing trials in February near Spokane, Wash.—each winning four bouts in the process—are fighting for a chance to make history.

MORE: The New Olympic Ring

Katherine Dunn  is an award-winning Oregon-based writer and author of Geek Love. She won the Dorothea Lange—Paul Taylor Award in 2004 for her work on School of Hard Knocks: The Struggle for Survival in America’s Toughest Boxing Gyms.

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Muhammad Ali’s first sounds were “Gee-Gee, Gee-Gee.” His beautiful mother Odessa Clay called her son “G-G” for the rest of her life, and years later, Ali would say, “After I won the Golden Gloves, I told Mama that from the very beginning, I was trying to say, ‘Golden Gloves.’ ” So began the life of Muhammad Ali, who celebrates his 70th birthday today.

Though many know him as the greatest boxer of all time, few know that it was actually the theft of his bicycle at age 12 that began his boxing career. After the bike was stolen, Ali ran to the police station, threatening to “whup whoever stole my bike.” Joe Martin, a white Louisville, Ky., policeman, told him he had better learn to fight, and in his spare time, he took Ali under his wing and taught him the ropes. Ali won his first fight six weeks later. When the referee raised his arm in victory, Ali shouted the iconic words that would become a self-fulfilling prophecy: “I’m gonna be the greatest of all time!”

But what was so incredible about Ali was all the courageous and selfless things he did beyond boxing. In 1975 I called Ali to talk to him about the campaign I was doing for Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, whose book convinced me that he was an innocent man in the slammer. Muhammad was so happy to hear I thought Rubin was innocent. He said, “Absolutely, I’m with you.” Ali literally stopped doing a million things to help someone — a fellow fighter — get out of jail. It was so heroic, and of all the times we worked together, it is still my favorite memory of him. I also can’t tell you how many times, when we were driving on the road, he’d see a school and make me pull over. He’d meet all 200 schoolkids and sign 200 autographs, often with a kid on his lap. That was just his personality, to be so giving of his time. It seriously got to the point that when I saw a school, I’d think, “Oh my God, here we go again. We’re in trouble.”

About 15 years ago, I was a juror in court in downtown Manhattan. After the case was over, the judge asked the jury to enter and talk to him. We go in, and he explains that one of the jurors was a man who changed his life. We’re looking at each other, and he goes, “The juror is George Lois.” Everyone is looking at me, and I’m looking at him like he’s crazy. He told me he was a student at Columbia University in the ’60s, when there were furious debates about Vietnam and draft dodgers, and how that 1968 Esquire cover of Ali as St. Sebastian solidified the argument for Ali’s decision to not participate in the draft. The judge said it changed Columbia University students’ understanding and point of view about the war. I remember that because it speaks to the influence of Ali. From a narcissistic self-promoter who eventually became a man of enduring spirituality through a journey of formidable tests, Ali emerged as a true superhero in the annals of American history and a worldwide ambassador of courage and conviction. A boxing legend who courageously spoke up for black men and civil rights throughout his life! Ali, above all, is the sweetest, nicest person I’ve ever met in my life. And on his glorious 70th birthday, I am privileged to salute him, with the rest of the world.

George Lois is one of advertising’s most famous art directors and cultural provocateurs. From 1962 to ’72, he art-directed several iconic covers for Esquire magazine. 

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Elliott Erwitt generally likes to let his pictures do the talking. “I’m very bad about talking about things,” he tells me with a smile, during a recent sit-down to look through his latest book, Sequentially Yours, published this month by teNeues.

The book playfully presents a series of unscripted vignettes that bear the personal hallmark and humor of his classic images and movies, but with an original twist— rather than single shots, the photos are shown as sequences. The result is somewhere between single exposures and films, and the stories play out like silent movies—touching, funny, sad, irreverent and full of surprise.

Erwitt uses his film sparingly; he’s the first to acknowledge that he does not take as many frames as most photographers when he shoots. “The process is sometimes more interesting than the finished picture,” he says. And it’s that thought that served as the impetus for Sequentially Yours. Looking through his archive, Erwitt decided it made more sense to show sequenced images— as opposed to a single shot a la Henri Cartier-Bresson’s “Decisive Moment.”

“You always look for the best picture, but sometimes the pictures are not that great alone. But in a group, they become interesting,” Erwitt says, citing the series of people trying to close an umbrella on a windy day. “None of these are a picture on their own, but as a sequence of 32, it’s hilarious—not being able to close the umbrella and going home with it open.”

The book’s layout mimics Erwitt’s photographs in style—classic and effortless—and each of the vignettes has different constructs and different outcomes—often open to interpretation—that surprise and entertain. There are iconic images of Erwitt’s that you would expect to be the final statement in a particular sequence that actually appear in the middle of a story, proving that the iconic image can come at different points in the process and that Erwitt continues to shoot with a natural curiosity beyond the point where other photographers might stop after they’ve gotten the picture.

In a photo series of an old man and his dog, Erwitt says “the picture is of course the man talking to the dog—having had his discussion, he goes on his way.” In another series, which takes place at a graveyard, he says, “You really don’t know what is going to happen—it starts with a woman going to a cemetery to deposit some flowers and a dog follows her.” The last picture shows the dog rolling on the ground—and could stand on its own as the picture—but it is made more interesting by those that precede it. But even as the punch line, this image is still open ended. Is the dog playing dead or simply being playful?

These sequences reveal how Erwitt shoots, and he clearly has a relaxed approach and patience. “It’s like fishing. Sometimes you catch one. You lay in wait for something to happen— sometimes it happens, sometimes it doesn’t,” the photographer says of his process.

Along with the stories, there are Erwitt’s iconic photographs of public figures. The familiar images give further context by the frames which were taken immediately before or after. A group portrait taken on the set of the The Misfits movie reveals the chemistry of the cast in the build up to the final image. Richard Nixon and Nikita Khrushchev are shown as a dyptich, and a series of Che Guevara portraits are simply four pictures taken from a single photo shoot. In a Muhammad Ali vs. Joe Frazier fight sequence, the subtlety is almost lost in the magnitude of the moment. Erwitt’s explanation of this unique series is almost as surprising as Ali being knocked to the canvas. While the accredited photographers shot handheld directly at ringside, Erwitt shot from the audience a distance away, with the camera on a tripod, so you can see that all three pictures are taken from the identical position.

And while most of the image sets are taken in a concentrated time frame, there are a couple of notable exceptions. Two photos of Erwitt’s first daughter—one in which she is pregnant and the other three months later with her baby—and a series which ends the book, showing Erwitt’s personal agenda covers adorned with photographs of his two daughters taken over a thirty year period.

Erwitt has published nearly 40 books, but Sequentially Yours provides a perfect, original and refreshing context for his intuitive and instinctive images. His playful humor and wit are as sharp as ever. Here, Erwitt gives you a sense of what happens next, the end point being sometimes comic, sometimes poignant and often with a wink.

Sequentially Yours was published this month by teNeues. Erwitt will participate in a book signing at the International Center of Photography in New York on Nov. 4.

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