When this provocative Esquire cover image was released in 1968, Muhammad Ali had been stripped of his title for refusing to be inducted into the U.S. Armed Forces and serve in the Vietnam War.
Ali, who had recently converted to the Nation Of Islam, believed that the war was against the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. As a result, he was arrested, tried and found guilty of draft evasion. The case would later be overthrown in the Supreme Court.
The idea of the cover image came from famous art director George Lois1, who decided to depict Ali as Saint Sebastian.
Lois believed that“everything you do has to be a unique surprising solution. The bigger the idea, the more shocking and memorable it will be. It’s really simple.”
One of my favorite quotes from him is that: “Creativity can solve almost any problem. The defeat of habit by originality, overcomes everything.”
With over 90 Esquire covers to his credit, Lois’s work was so influential that it was displayed at the MoMA and into this coffee book collection.
According to photographer Carl Fischer, who worked with Lois on many of his covers:
“We worked over the telephone. Lois never made layouts, never made drawings for the covers. He just had the idea of what the cover should be and he would call up and say, “We have a story about Ali and the fact that he lost his title. Why don’t we do something with him as Saint Sebastian?”
In an interview with Juxtapoz magazine, Lois described the process of connecting with Ali and his hesitancy during the shoot:
I get Ali on the phone and told him that I need him in NYC for 2 days, and he says “Gee George, I can’t…”. And I said, “Fuck you, you’re not doing anything.”
There wasn’t a fight. He had no license to fight, and he would just go to colleges and give talks. He was funny as hell.
Anyways, so I said “I’m going to take a photo of you as Saint Sebastian, blah blah blah.” And Ali says okay. I told him to bring his pretty white fucking trunks and his pretty white shoes and bring your sorry ass.
The day of the shoot, I had looked at hundreds of pictures of the great painting of Saint Sebastian and they are all really bright. But I told Ali, “I want you to pose where your body is very quiet but your head is in pain because I don’t want to show your body like that. I want to show your body strong, but your head is in pain.”
So he’s looking at this postcard of the painting and he looks at it and says, “Hey George, is he a Christian?” And I say, “Saint Sebastian… yes he’s a Christian!”
And Ali says. “George I can’t pose as a Christian.” I said, “It’s a symbolic thing. Anyone in the world can look at this thing and understand the imagery. And the imagery doesn’t say that you’re a Christian, the imagery says that you are a martyr. And what I am saying is that you a martyr to your race, you are a martyr because of the war. It’s a combination of race, religion, and war in one image, you’re symbolizing it in one image.”
And he says, “George, I can’t pose as a Christian, this is against my religion.”
I go holy shit, “Who can I talk to? He didn’t know who. And I said, “Can I talk to Elijah Muhammad? Can you get him on the phone?”
It takes about 2 minutes, but Ali gets him on the phone, so I pick up and have about a 15 minute talk about what religion am I, how old am I, etc. I’m talking to him about symbolism, how Ali is a martyr, blah blah blah. Finally, Elijah asks to speak to Ali.
Then, Ali gets off the phone with him and says, “Lets do it!”
1 Lois’s most recognizable Esquire cover is probably this one of Andy Warhol. He also once put Sonny Liston in a Santa Clause outfit and explained: “If I were a black guy back then I would have been a terrorist! I showed the meanest mother fucker, the nastiest man who ever lived, scowling at the camera in a Santa Clause outfit. The last man America wants to see go down a chimney is Sonny Liston!”
photo via Newmanology