“The desire to tell stories is very basic to human nature. … my strength is in my ability to tell a story well visually. I take an approach that can be described as ‘curiosity focused.'” -Al Satterwhite

Al Satterwhite’s photography is like a walk through time. He has photographed icons — controversial personages all — Muhammad Ali, actor and activist Jane Fonda, comic and moviemaker Mel Brooks, bodybuilder and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, author and gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson, daredevil Evel Knievel — the list seems unending as you go through his long and storied career.

High school passion

Like so many photographers, Al Satterwhite’s love and passion for photography began in high school and the local paper’s student section. By the time he graduated, photography had gone from hobby to a career when he became a staff photographer for that local paper, the St. Petersburg Times. Al worked for the student paper during his collegial stint at the University of Florida. “I developed all my own photos in their darkroom,” he shares. “I had unlimited access there.”

Aerospace to journalism

On Photography: Al Satterwhite, 1944-present
Camera shy Al Satterwhite holds a print of Hunter S. Thompson. Photo by Jack Zellweger

Al quickly realized that his declared major of aerospace at UF barely passing his freshman year. He changed major and schools moving to the University of Missouri and into photojournalism. He built a darkroom in his apartment. “You don’t need much for a darkroom,” he notes. “You just put black plastic sheets over the windows … and use your bathtub for the chemical trays.”

Al got a AA degree after two years in school. He says of his college experiences, “I realized I had gotten as much of a college education that I was ever going to get,” he says. “You’re only as good as your last shot anyway!”

The governor’s photographer

Wanting to move out of newspaper shooting, Al went to work as Florida Gov. Claude Kirk Jr.’s personal photographer. He traveled … a lot. “I spent the majority of my time in a Learjet traveling with the governor,” 

He left the position after a little more than a year saying, “I got bored of politics.”

Freelance is hard

“You’re always looking for work. You can never turn anything down. The first seven, eight, nine years of my life as a photographer, when I first started freelancing, I’d get one job a month, $150 to $200 per day. It’s not a lot of money!” he recounts.

Disregarding his early struggles financially he has no regrets. “I wouldn’t have been doing it if I didn’t love it,” he says. “I’ve gotten to travel and meet a lot of people in Europe, Australia, Africa, you name it. I’ve shot people whose religion involved handling snakes. One time I got onto the floor of the French stock exchange to take photos, just by talking. These are the skills you pick up — you could drop me in any country, and I could figure out how to get by, how to get a meal, how to get some money, and how to get where I need to be to get the job done.”

That work ethic helped Al Satterwhite become famous working for magazines titles including People, Playboy, Sports Illustrated, Travel & Leisure, Fortune, Newsweek and, of course, LIFE.

Advertising

Tiring of photojournalism, Al started a production company after moving to New York. He did projects for major brands — Sony, Porsche, Nikon, American Express, Universal Studios, Saab and Polaroid. On starting his own company Al reflects, “I struggled financially; then I started my own company. It was a success.”

On exhibit

Several museums hold the work of Al Satterwhite. The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery has his portraits of race car driver Mario Andretti and Rolling Stone Magazine writer Hunter S. Thompson. Photos of Muhammad Ali are at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. His work is in the permanent collections including the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA).

Opening photo

Top row, clockwise from top left: Tomato, Evel Knievel, Twin Falls, Idaho before is failed jump of the Snake River Canyon, Lauren Hutton, Muhammad Ali training at the 5th Street Gym, Miami Beach, Ken Miles driving the Ford GT-X1 at Sebring 1966.

Bottom row, clockwise from left: Joe Namath New York Jets at Miami 1972, Paul Newman, Linda Fratianne and Steve McQueen.

The Briscoe Center for American History at The University of Texas at Austin has acquired Al Satterwhite’s photo archive.

Al Satterwhite has published books on Muhammad Ali and Arnold Schwarzenegger (Titans,) original photos of Hunter S. Thompson (The Cozumel Diary,) Carroll Shelby, The Racers, and Satterwhite on Color and Design to name a few.

Sources: Morrison Hotel Gallery, Southbay, Al Satterwhite.