About Photography: Neil Leifer, 1942-present

“I took four or five pictures that people will remember.” – Neil Leifer

Opening photo, top row lr: 1958 NFL championship game at Yankee Stadium, column top to bottom: USSR weightlifter Vasily Alexeyev 1970, Sylvester Stallone and Mr. T on set for Rocky III 1982, Florence Griffith-Joiner 1988 Olympics, Muhammad Alis first-round knockout of Sonny Liston in 1965 and aerial view of the Ali List knockout.

Opening photo, bottom row, left: Hank Arron in 1964, Chris Evert in 1977, Alabama head coach Paul Bear Bryant in 1979, and Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi in 1969

60 year career

Sports photographer and filmmaker Neil Leifer’s photographs have appeared in Sports Illustrated, Time and LIFE magazines since the 1960s. He has done over 200 covers for Sports Illustrated, People and Time.

Lower East Side

Neil Leifer grew up poor in a very difficult neighborhood where children either went upriver to Sing Sing Prison or found a tuition-free college or scholarship. He played basketball in the gym. There were things kids could do to keep them off the streets and out of trouble.

camera club

One of the things that Neil Leifer found was photography as one of those things where he could learn something new that would come in handy later in life. He was thirteen.

“Well, they had a camera club and I started taking pictures,” recalls Neil Leifer. “No one could afford a camera or film; They donated cameras and film.”

Why photograph sports?

“I started taking sports pictures because it combined two things that I liked,” he said. “The idea of ​​getting the best seat in the house at an event and doing something I enjoy, which is photography, was perfect. It was just a happy coincidence, because the word business or career didn’t exist in my vocabulary when I was 14 years old.”

Get the best seat

In the late 1950s, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) was still pending. There was no wheelchair access to the grandstands.

Neil Leifer tells the story of his photograph of The Greatest Game Ever Played in the Bronx in 1958. “The only place you could actually take these wheelchairs was right on the field along the outfield wall. Well that got you on the field.

“As they entered the stadium, they realized that the worst place indoors is on the field, especially when you’re stuck in an end zone, unless you’re trying to take pictures,” explained Neil Leifer. “I was the only one trying to take some pictures. Yes, it was completely out of range for half the game.

Former heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali and photographer Neil Leifer

It actually lasted four-fifths of the game because the only camera I had back then was this – I used to call it a poor man’s Rolleiflex – a Yashica mat with a regular lens. Had I had the money for a mid-telephoto lens that I dreamed of, I would never have gotten this picture, which is another lucky factor because I just wasn’t creative enough to think I’d fill the frame with the game .”

“Instead, of course, my picture shows the whole atmosphere, the whole atmosphere in Yankee Stadium. In the late afternoon, with the sudden death, the magic hour began in film jargon. It was beautiful,” he said. “You had the stadium lights and a bit of haze and it was wonderful. And right in front of me you had every player on the field because I couldn’t get the lens close enough. And of course what happened was Ameche got the winning touchdown right in our end zone and at that point I was exactly ten yards ahead of him on the goal line and he came right at me.” Opening photo, top row, first image.

The greatest sports photo

“I’ll start this off by saying I’ve never met a good sports photographer or a photographer who didn’t have a healthy ego, so I’m not modest when I use the word lucky. Luck in sports photography is everything and what separates the truly top sports photographer from the ordinary is that when he or she is lucky he or she doesn’t miss a thing. That’s the key. But you have to be lucky,” said Leifer. “For example, my most famous picture, Muhammad Ali, standing over Sonny Liston, the guy between Ali’s legs, was a veteran boxing photographer, the great photographer Herb Scharfman. I don’t care how good he was that day; He was in the wrong seat. He looked up at Ali’s bottom and that was the only picture he could get. I was obviously in the right place, but what matters is that I didn’t miss anything.” Opening photo, top row, second large image.


In this video, Neil Leifer explains how he took the photo of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston.

Sources: Neil Leifer, The Post Game.

Read stories from inspirational photographers in On Photography.

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