This post 1st appeared in The Prices Do DC – 12.10.2011
He’s been called “the Mozart of sports photographers.” His photos made the front cover of more than 170 issues of Sports Illustrated. His shot of Muhammad Ali (then known as Cassius Clay) standing in triumph over a fallen Sonny Liston is considered the greatest sports photo of the 20th Century.
Neil Leifer, whose photos make up the visually arresting Photo Finish: The Sports Photography of Neils Leifer now on display at the Newseum, described his 5 decades as a premier picture taker during today’s latest edition of the interactive museum’s Inside Media program.
During his hour-long presentation, moderated by long-time journalist Shelby Coffee, the amiable Leifer detailed his belief that his amazing success is a combination of skill, determination, preparation, and perhaps most of all, some incredible luck.
As a teenager, Leifer said he knew exactly what he wanted to do with his life. He wanted to combine his passion for sports with his love of photography. “Besides, I knew it would let me have the best seat in the house which I never would have been able to afford,” Leifer said.
In 1958, pluck and ingenuity propelled Leifer toward his desired career. He would arrive early at Yankee Stadium for New York Giants football games and volunteer to wheel in disabled veterans. “There were 50 or 60 veterans and only 6 or 7 people to push the wheelchairs. Once we got them in, we could watch the game,” Leifer said. He explained that he would bring hot coffee to shivering police officers who would “look the other way” while Leifer would pull his cheap camera out from under his coat and shoot some pictures from the bench or the end zone. It was this arrangment that allowed him to capture his first great shot: Johnny Unitas scoring the winning touchdown in what is still called the greatest professional football game ever played. “I learned that day that 75 percent of great sports photography is luck and the rest is getting the shot,” Leifer explained.
Leifer readily admits that boxing is his favorite sport, with the incomparable Ali his favorite subject of all-time. Leifer captured Ali in more than 70 different photo sessions, some staged and some acted out on canvas. “Ali was God’s gift to every journalist and photographer. He made everything you did that much better,” he said.
Not surprisingly, Leifer calls Ali that greatest athlete he ever photographed. Numbers 2 and 3 aren’t as obvious, however. He lists triple-crown winner Secretariat as second. In 3rd place, he claims it is American Olympic skater Eric Heiden. “He raced in all 5 speed skating races, won all 5, and set 4 records,” Leifer said. “I think that may be the most incredible sports performance of all-time.”
And what, after the millions of photos he has taken, is his favorite? Leifer says that answer is easy – it is the 1966 picture of Ali walking back to his corner in the Houston Astrodome after kocking out his challenger. “That picture … there isn’t a thing I would change,” Leifer said. “It’s the only one of my pictures I have hanging in my house.”
While Leifer is most known for his collection of sports shots, he has scored with some non-sports pictures, too. One of his favorite photos came after he convinced Cuban dictator Fidel Castro to light his cigar and then have a shot of both of them smoking away. Leifer captured a Time magazine cover with his shot of Pope John Paul. And then there is the rare picture of a hat-wearing President John Kennedy at the opening day of the 1961 baseball season at Washington’s Griffith Stadium. Leifer explained how he captured that picture. As was then custom, Kennedy, as president was called upon to throw out the first pitch. “Let’s just say he had a lousy delivery. I knew I didn’t have a picture there,” Leifer said. So, for the next 8 innings, he sat with his back to the game, waiting for a worthwhile shot of JFK. “I was hoping he would eat a hot dog and get some mustard on his chin, but he wasn’t really doing anything,” Leifer said. Suddenly, it became colder and Kennedy did something he never did – he placed a hat on his head. Then, Leifer was once again the recipient of great luck. A high foul ball headed toward the Presidential box, Kennedy turned, Leifer clicked, and another award-winning photo was captured. “I always say this is the picture of the Kennedy administration leaning left. Caroline Kennedy once told me that (picture) was the only time she had ever seen her Dad with a hat on,” Leifer said.
During the audience question-and-answer session, Leiffer was asked if there were any shots he regretted not capturing. “Of course,” he responded. “You’re paid not to miss, but you do. Sometimes it comes down to being in the right seat. There’s skill involved, but as I say, there’s a lot of luck, too.”
Coffee said Leifer is an extreme rarity in the sports world, a non-athlete who is considered as famous as the subjects he is covering. “I’ve been with Neil at an event and it’s sort of like being backstage with Bono at a U2 concert. John McEnroe comes to Neil’s table to greet him,” Coffee explained.