Written By: Bill Syken

The photographs of Bob Gomel put you in a diner with Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, poolside with the Beatles, and high above the U.S. Capitol rotunda as John F. Kennedy lay in state.

Gomel plied his craft in the middle of history—not that he knew it at the time. “I had no idea the 60s would be so iconic,” Gomel, 88, said recently in a phone interview. “It seemed quite ordinary at the time, but looking back on it now, I realize how fortunate I was.”

Gomel grew up in the Bronx, N.Y. and became fascinated with photography in grade school. One of his teachers was a photographer who kept in his classroom a sepia-toned print of a pigeon standing on a manhole cover on a cobblestone street. That image beguiled Gomel, and he saved money from his job delivering groceries to buy his first camera at Willoughby’s in Manhattan. Gomel shot pictures for his high school paper and then in college at NYU, where he made connections with senior members of the New York press while shooting games at Madison Square Garden.

After a four-year stint in the U.S. Navy as an aviator, he came back to the U.S. and actually turned down a plum job offer from the Associated Press, so focussed was he on creating magazine-style narrative journalism. His initial breakthrough with LIFE came during a tough time for his family; Gomel’s brother was in a serious car accident, and Gomel shot pictures of his family as they managed this crisis, including photos of his brother’s operation during which a lung was removed. Gomel showed those pictures to LIFE editors, who were impressed and began to give him work. (His brother recovered and went on to live a full life, Gomel says.)

While obviously possessed of a great eye, Gomel says that his best attribute as a photographer was his ability to earn the trust of his subjects. It shows in his photos with Ali, who Gomel shot many times over the years. When Ali and Malcolm X celebrated Ali’s winning the heavyweight title from Sonny Liston, the only two photographers present were Gomel and the boxer’s personal photographer.

Gomel enjoyed great rapport with John F. Kennedy, and they bonded in humorous circumstances. After Kennedy was elected in 1960, Gomel was one of the pack of photographers who camped outside the president-elect’s Georgetown home in those wintry days, capturing photos of the people who came to consult and interview for cabinet positions. One day a Kennedy press staffer informed the assembled media that Kennedy was not seeing any visitors that day, so they could all go home. Everyone left, except for Gomel and one other photographer. After a while Kennedy opened the window and invited the photographers to come in from the cold, and he fed them a sumptuous steak meal—after which Gomel fell asleep on Kennedy’s sofa. “He never let me forget that embarrassing moment,” Gomel says.

Gomel would go on to capture stunning images from Kennedy’s funeral after the president’s assassination. While Kennedy’s casket was on display in the Capitol rotunda, Gomel broke away from the pack to climb the stairs and find an overhead view. It had been a cloudy day, but when Gomel was on high, the clouds parted and sunlight shone through, a moment so photographically propitious that Gomel refers to it as “divine intervention.”

When Eisenhower’s casket was on display in the same rotunda years later, Gomel became the first photographer to gain permission to set up a rig directly overhead, for what became a LIFE cover.

Gomel is aware that his career is inevitably defined by the photos he took of the famous and the powerful, and while he understands that, he also regrets it. Talking from his Houston home, Gomel spoke of how he looks at the New York Times obituaries each day, and thinks of how he will be recorded as a photographer of Ali and JFK and the like, and his pictures of ordinary people—including those he enjoys shooting to this day when he and his wife travel—will fade into the background.

One more “everyday” image from his years at LIFE he speaks passionately of: in 1960 he shot a story about the return of the Triton submarine after circumnavigating the globe—the first submarine ever to do so while remaining submerged for its entire journey. The trip was a Cold War display of might. Among the crowd was a little girl waiting for the return of her father, who was a crew member on the ship. As she readied to welcome him home safe after two months underwater, tears fell from both eyes.

“Those tears—it’s my favorite image of all time,” he says.

Gomel tells many more stories about his LIFE work in the 2020 documentary Bob Gomel: Eyewitness. Enjoy this gallery, which includes many of Gomel’s images of the famous and the everyday.

Cassius Clay And Malcolm X 1964

Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X celebrated after Ali won the heavyweight title, 1964.

(c) Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

LIFE magazine, March 6, 1964.

Gomel actually took this photo before Muhammad Ali won the heavyweight championship from Sonny Liston, so LIFE would have a cover prepped for deadline in case Ali scored the upset.

Photo by Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

Cassius Clay later Muhammad Ali in 1965

Muhammad Ali viewed a photo of Sonny Liston before their rematch in 1965.

(c) Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

Muhammad Ali in New York City, 1968

Muhammad Ali in 1968, at the Broadway play The Great White Hope, about the life of boxer Jack Johnson.

Bob Gomel / LIFE Picture Collection via Shutterstock

Beatles cavorting in Miami pool, February, 1964.

John Lennon did cannonballs, Paul McCartney splashed and Ringo Starr turned away during a photo shoot in Miami, 1964; LIFE chose not to run the pictures, and they remained unpublished until 2015.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

The Beatles in a pool in Miami 1964

John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in a swimming pool in Miami, February 1964.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

John Lennon;Paul Mccartney;Ringo Starr;George Harrison

John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul Mccartney and Ringo Starr, February 1964.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

Beatles In Miami 1964

The Beatles clowned for the camera in Miami, 1964.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

John F. Kennedy and daughter Caroline strolled in Georgetown, weeks after he had won the presidential election, 1960.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

Carloline Kennedy looked out the window in her Georgetown home, 1960.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

John F. Kennedy stood amid sea of reporters at the hospital on the day of the birth of his son John Jr. on November 25, 1960.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

President John Kennedy emerged from inside a model of the Apollo space capsule during his tour of the Manned Space Center, on the day he had announced his intention to put a man on the moon.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

President John F. Kennedy’s flag-draped coffin, Capitol Rotunda, Washington, D.C.; photographer Bob Gomel described the parting of the clouds that sent the beam of light shining down as “divine intervention.”

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

A horse-drawn caisson bearing the flag-draped casket of John F, Kennedy led the funeral cortege and was followed by a riderless horse, Washington, D.C., November 25, 1963.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

General Charles De Gaulle of France and Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassie (center, saluting), along with German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard, Philippine President Macapagal, South Korean President Chung Hee Park and many other dignitaries, attended at the burial of John F. Kennedy, Arlington National Cemetery, Va.

© Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

Actor Dustin Hoffman visited the unemployment office in New York City to discusses his case two months before the opening of the movie The Graduate, which would make him a star; Gomel, who was shadowing Hoffman, recalls that they rode to the unemployment office in a movie studio limousine.

Bob Gomel / LIFE Picture Collection via Shutterstock

Dustin Hoffman did chin-ups in doorway of his NYC apartment, 1968.

Bob Gomel / LIFE Picture Collection via Shutterstock

Humorist and former Marine Art Buchwald (left) went back to boot camp in service of a light-hearted story for LIFE, 1965.

(c) Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

This image of a basset hound illustrated a story about what dogs go through when the kids in their home return to school in the fall.

(c) Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

Warren Beatty at the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1967.

Warren Beatty at the National Catholic Office for Motion Pictures in 1967.

Bob Gomel / LIFE Picture Collection via Shutterstock

For a story on airplane traffic backups due to a work action by air traffic controllers, photographer Bob Gomel arranged to have planes lined up on the run way to illustrate the congestion (and create a vertical image for the LIFE cover).

Bob Gomel / LIFE Picture Collection via Shutterstock

To illustrate the exuberance of youth hockey, LIFE photographer Bob Gomel placed a five-dollar bill under a hockey puck and had the players go after it, capturing the joy and mayhem of the ensuing dogpile.

(c) Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

Running back Eugene “Merucry” Morris of West Texas State; photographer Bob Gomel had an art student at the school design wings for the helmet.

Bob Gomel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Eugene "Mercury" Morris, West Texas State, 1968.

Running back Eugene “Mercury” Morris of West Texas State.

Bob Gomel/The LIFE Picture Collection © Meredith Corporation

Al Hirschfeld with his daughter Nina, 1961.

Al Hirschfeld with his daughter Nina, whose name he famously worked into his drawings, 1961.

(c) Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

Lisa Fisher, the daughter of a US Navy officer on submarine Triton, which had circumnavigated the globe while submerged—a historic first—wept as she welcomed her father back from his two months underwater, 1960.

(c) Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

Life Magazine’s cover of April 11, 1969, featured an overhead view of the coffin of former American President Dwight D. Eisenhower lying in state under the US Capitol Rotunda; this was the first time a camera rig had been suspended above the rotunda in that manner.

Photo by Bob Gomel / Courtesy of Bob Gomel

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