PPD Masters Series: Neil Leifer on the Sporting Life And Beyond

By Jeff Wignall   Wednesday January 13, 2016

It’s difficult to think of a photographer who has shot as many instantly-identifiable photographs as Neil Leifer  has.

As a staff photographer first for Sports Illustrated and then for Time magazine, Leifer created cover shots that became the visual headlines of the week. Who won the big heavyweight championship fight? There was a Leifer cover to tell you. What athletes were expected to take gold at the winter Olympics? Leifer’s images supplied the answer. What was the news coming out of the political conventions? Leifer's cover photos summed them up in a single shot.

By the time Leifer left Time/Life in 1990, his photographs had appeared on more than 200 Sports Illustrated, Time, and People covers—the most by any photographer at the time. During his years at SI — a magazine he began shooting for when he was just 16 years old — Leifer regularly covered every major sport, from boxing to baseball to the Olympics, and he did it with an insight and a passion that transcended mere reporting. His photos of Muhammad Ali  (he shot 35 of Ali’s fights) have become one of the most comprehensive and iconic documents of any athlete in history. His photo of Ali standing over a defeated Sonny Liston in their 1965 rematch is widely considered one of the greatest sports photos of all time.

Leifer’s life in photography began when he was a kid growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. There, he joined a camera club at the Henry Street Settlement. “It was just a hobby,” he recalls. “Before I really got into sports photography, I was just as keen on photographing Navy ships and jet planes. We lived right opposite the Brooklyn Navy Yard and I’d photograph the ships coming in and out of there. I’d also go out to Floyd Bennett Airfield in Brooklyn and photograph Navy jet fighters just as they were coming in to land.”

Leifer says he never expected photography to be more than a hobby. “When I got into photography, the word ‘business’ wasn’t a part of my vocabulary. I thought it was something that I would outgrow and that I would become a doctor or a lawyer, and certainly that’s what my parents expected,” he says. “But I was a huge sports fan and had really gotten into photography. Once I began getting paid to do something I loved to do, at events that I would have paid to get into, that was the turning point. It was just fortuitous that it all came together at the right time for me.”

Today, Leifer focuses on producing and directing films, though he continues to shoot still photos for one simple reason: He loves taking pictures. He recently took time out to talk with writer Jeff Wignall about his long career in photography and his current film projects.

PPD: You began shooting National Football League games at Yankee Stadium when you were just a teenager. How did you get access to the field?  

I had just gotten into shooting sports and I wanted to go to some of the New York Giants’s games. But I grew up in a low-income housing project, and buying tickets for things like NFL football games was not something that I could even contemplate. At the time, the Giants played at Yankee Stadium and I found a way to go in and be on the field for free. I’m not sure how I discovered this, but they would line the wall right behind one of the two end zones with wheelchair-bound Army veterans. Every week, from four to six buses would show up with 25 to 50 veterans, and they never had enough people to help wheel them in. I waited for the buses to come and volunteered to help with the wheelchairs and they were delighted to have some additional help.

Once you got into the stadium you were right on the field in the end zone. It was not a great place to watch a game from, but it was a pretty damn good spot if you wanted to shoot pictures. I was thrilled to be on the field and I knew that when the play got close to us I’d have a chance to take some pictures.

PPD: What camera did you bring with you?

NL: The only camera that I had then was a 2 1/4-inch format Yashica Mat with a fixed lens. It was sort of a poor man’s Rollieflex.

PPD: One of your most famous shots was made during the 1958 NFL Championship game between the New York Giants and the Baltimore Colts at Yankee Stadium. How did that shot happen?

NL: That game has often been called the “greatest football game that was ever played.” The Baltimore Colts beat the Giants in sudden-death overtime. During the game, as luck would have it, the final play was right at the end zone I was standing behind. Johnny Unitas, the great Colts quarterback, had just handed the ball off to Alan Ameche, who scored the winning touchdown. I just happened to be standing right at the end zone.

PPD: So fate smiled on you that day?

NL: Fate smiled at me twice that day — first by letting me be there on the field, exactly 10 yards in front of Ameche. He ran right at me. I was perfectly focused on the goal line. But I was lucky in another way, too. What makes the photo special is that there is no way on Earth that I would have shot that photo if I had been able to afford a decent 35mm camera with a medium telephoto lens like all the pros were using. But I didn’t have that, I had this fixed 80mm lens on a 2 1/4-inch square-format camera, so instead of getting a close-up and packing the frame, I got the whole width of the line of scrimmage. You could see the hole that Ameche opened, with the players on the left and the players on the right, and you had the lights at Yankee Stadium. It was just dusk, magic hour, and it was a little misty and the mood was very dramatic — perfect, I’d say.

PPD: How old were you when you made that shot?

I made that shot on my sixteenth birthday — December 28, 1958.

: You’ve covered virtually every sport. Is there a favorite among them?

NL: Oh, it’s boxing, no question about it. Boxing is special to me for any number of reasons, but mainly it's because I’ve always found that the nicest athletes in all of sports are boxers. I tell people that, and they don’t believe me, but here are these kids with no education and often coming from rough backgrounds, and many of them had problems with the law. For them, being tough was part of staying alive. However, when you bring a lady into the gym, it’s amazing how the language cleans up and how polite they become. From my experience, they are genuinely the nicest athletes. Combine that with the fact that I’m a year younger than Muhammad Ali, and that my career paralleled his career. Once you start shooting a subject like Ali, how could you not fall in love with boxing?

PPD: How often have you photographed Ali?

NL: I’ve photographed 35 of his fights and probably had that many non-fight sessions with him when I was either doing a posed cover of him for SI in the studio or photographing him at his home, a press conference, or a weigh-in.

PPD: What is it about Ali that made you focus on him?

NL:  Muhammad was a showman. He was unbelievably charismatic, and most important to me he loved the camera and the camera loved him. When you’re starting out, if you’re a young writer or a young photographer, you always want to look good to your editor. I wanted to look good, and when working with Muhammad you were always going to be a hero. Muhammad was always the most accessible and agreeable subject imaginable. If you needed 20 minutes with Ali, you ended up getting 40 minutes. He was that way with everybody. You had to fall in love with him because the guy always made you look good.

PPD: I’ve read that your famous overhead shot from the Ali vs. Cleveland Williams  fight in 1966 is your favorite ever. Was that the first time you’d put a camera in the light rigging over the ring?

NL: That’s my favorite picture, hands down, and it has always been. But I had put cameras up in the rigging many times before. As soon as you started working for Sports Illustrated you had the access, so you could do remote shots. It was not a new thing. The wire services always put cameras up in the rigging, probably starting in the 1940s. There were pictures of Joe Lewis taken by remote control, and certainly photos of Rocky Marciano and boxers like Sugar Ray Robinson. But never could you do it the way that I did at the Houston Astrodome for the Ali-Williams fight.

Before the Astrodome was built, you could never have done a picture like that, because the lighting rigging in most arenas was usually 20 to 25 feet over the ring. No wide-angle lens made could get you the entire ring in the picture. You could do it with a fisheye lens, and I did, but there is a lot of distortion and it’s not nearly the same. The Astrodome had a lighting gondola that went up 80 feet over the ring. Because of the size of the arena, it had to be that high, or it would have blocked the view for most of the upper seats. And that extra height meant that you could put a camera up there with with a normal lens and still capture the entire ring. Nobody had ever put a camera above the absolute center of the ring before. They used to mount their cameras at the sides or in the corner in order to capture a little more of the face of whoever scored the knockdown when he put his arms up.

: How did you come to start using Sony mirrorless cameras, and why?

NL:  For the last seven years I have been lecturing on photography on Crystal Cruise Lines ships a couple of times a year. In the summer of 2014, I was on a cruise when one of the guests showed me his new Sony a7 camera. He wanted to know what I thought about it, and he handed me the camera. The guests are often asking me about photographic equipment and what I think about this camera or that camera. He told me that it had a full-frame sensor, and he was raving about it. I was immediately fascinated by how light the camera was and that it had a Zeiss lens.

Something about the a7 really appealed to me, and when I got back to New York I called Sony and told them that I’d love to try the camera and asked if they would consider lending me one, and they did. Since I still liked to photograph boxing, I decided to try it out shooting fights one night at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn. Today the lighting in boxing arenas is very different from the old days. The ring is lit in a totally show-business way — it looks more like a Rolling Stones concert than a boxing event. I was really concerned with trying to capture the ambiance and the feeling of a fight night as it looks today. I also wanted to see if I could balance the big Jumbotron video screens above the ring with the lighting on the boxers in the ring, so that both would be properly exposed.

The cameras Sony loaned to me performed perfectly. I was really happy with the results — you could say that it was “love at first fight.” I thought it would be great to use the cameras to shoot the big championship fight between Manny Pacquiao and Floyd Mayweather Jr. in Las Vegas last May, so I asked Sony if I could borrow the cameras again.

Since I had already tested the cameras, by the time I shot the Pacquiao-Mayweather weigh-in, I had total confidence in them. I hit a home run at the weigh-in — I was able to capture the feeling of the spectacle exactly as I hoped to. It really was a pleasure to work with the cameras on fight night. I love the fact that the cameras are so light, even when using  the 70-200mm handheld. My shots from the fight itself couldn’t have been better. The quality of the pictures will allow me to use them in future books and to make big 40 x 60-inch prints for any upcoming exhibitions.

PPD: Do you enjoy working with mirrorless cameras?

NL: I’ve never been a technical bug. I just like the Sony cameras — whether they’re mirrorless or not mirrorless doesn’t make a difference to me. Maybe it’s just because I’m getting older, but when you’re used to carrying heavy equipment, it’s such a pleasure to use a camera that is this good and is also extremely lightweight. Normally at a fight, assuming I was not shooting from ringside on the ring apron, I would have one long lens around my neck and when you have to hold one of those up for 12 rounds, it gets very heavy. I would always need a monopod. But the Sony cameras are so light that if I’m shooting a fight I never get tired. When I was shooting the Pacquiao-Mayweather fight, for example, I kept marveling at the fact that I could comfortably handhold the Sony cameras for an entire fight.

PPD:  Do you find any advantages or things that you like about working with electronic viewfinders?

NL: Again, I’m just not that knowledgeable about what’s going on technically with the cameras. They work very well for me, and that’s all I want. I was very technically knowledgeable back when I was using Nikon motor drives, because you had to be. Today’s cameras make it so easy not to worry about that kind of stuff that I simply don’t.

PPD: Which Sony cameras are you currently using?

NL:  I have the a7 II and I have the RX100 III. The RX100 III is a killer. And as a bonus, these cameras have Zeiss lenses. I grew up using Hasselblad and Rolleiflex, and I used Zeiss lenses very early and I know the great quality you get with with Zeiss lenses. The Nikon was easily the best camera when I started, and then Canon came along very strong for a period of time. They were certainly the tools that every sports photographer really needed. But quite frankly I’m very interested to see if in the next five years Sony doesn’t make a major dent in what Nikon and Canon are doing. I think the Sony cameras are perfect for sports photography. The Zeiss lenses are the best there are. The Sony cameras are just the perfect fit for sports photography.

PPD: You’ve also shot many Olympic games. What are the logistics like for shooting something as expansive as that?

NL: The Olympic games are exciting and fun to cover. I particularly love the winter Olympic events, because they make great pictures, and these are events you never see anywhere else. The hardest part of covering the Olympics is that it’s like a marathon: If you want to really cover the games, you never stop working. You get up in the morning and you go to an event and when that event is over you go to another and you try to grab a little lunch in between if you can. Then there are evening events, which are usually the prime events. You get up again the next day and do more events, and that lasts for 18 or so days. But the events are very exciting to shoot, particularly things like the ski jump, bob sledding, and figure skating, in the winter games. In the summer games, track and field and equestrian events make great pictures and are fun to shoot.

: In 1978  you stopped shooting sports as your primary subject. Why did you make that decision?

NL: I moved over to Time because there’s a whole world out there, and I never wanted to be pigeon-holed as just a sports photographer. Believe me, I’m not putting down sports photography, because everything I have today probably is the result of the work that I did at Sports Illustrated. But I always had other interests. When I moved to Time magazine I got to fly with “Top Gun” pilots. For Life magazine, I went to Vietnam with the Battleship New Jersey, a ship that I had photographed as a kid. I also went to Kuwait during the first Gulf War as a picture editor, but while I was there I shot F18s over the burning oil fields of Kuwait.

PPD: You’re working largely in films these days, but in terms of stills, what are you shooting?

NL: I still like to shoot a big fight like Pacquiao-Mayweather. I’m doing a book of my boxing pictures over the years with Taschen, and I want it to be up to date. Mainly, I shoot pictures of my girlfriend and our vacations, my kids and my grandkids. Almost everything I shoot is for fun. Trying to be successful as a filmmaker is a full-time mission.

PPD: Can you talk about a few of your favorite film projects?

NL: My most recent film is called Keepers of the Streak. It was done for ESPN and NFL Films. It’s a film about four photographers, all of whom I’ve known for 50 years and who I grew up with, including Walter Iooss and John Biever at Sports Illustrated. Also Mickey Palmer, who was a fellow member of the camera club at the Henry Street Settlement when I was a kid, and Tony Tomsic, a wonderful sports photographer from Cleveland. They were the only four guys who shot every one of the first 48 Super Bowls.

I also did a film with a very close friend, the art director Walter Bernard, for an HBO Documentary called Portraits of a Lady. It was about 25 artists who have a painting club in New York called the Portrait Group. They have been meeting every Wednesday for more than 50 years. You’d get these 25 people all doing portraits of the same model at the same time, some working in pencil, some working in charcoal or oil. Among the artists were Aaron Shikler, who did the famous official portrait of John F. Kennedy, and David Levine, perhaps the world’s greatest caricaturist. We got former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to sit for them, and she was absolutely wonderful. She sat for the whole day, and we filmed it. We finished the film with an exhibition of the 25 portrait paintings at the National Portrait Gallery, and O’Connor was the guest of honor. The film was short-listed for an Academy Award Nomination.

: Do you ever think about how the span of your career and the heyday of the printed magazine paralleled one another?

NL: Yes, I do, all the time. I like to tell people that when it comes to sports photography, there is a tremendous amount of luck required. You can’t be in the right place every time, you can’t always be in the right position when the winning touchdown is scored. What separates the really good photographers from the ordinary ones is that when you are in the right seat, when you are in the right place, you don’t miss. When you get lucky, you don’t miss. You come up with something terrific. Well, the same thing is very true about the timing of my career. My career definitely paralleled the heyday of Life and Sports Illustrated as weekly magazines. At Sports Illustrated and Time we had everything we could possibly want to get good pictures. If you didn’t get the shots, it was because of you, not because of a lack of money or equipment.

PPD: Do you think today’s photographers have the same opportunities for success?

NL: I lecture frequently, usually on cruise ships, but I also occasionally lecture at universities and colleges to journalism classes. I always tell the students that there are no guarantees in life, but I will absolutely guarantee you a career as good as mine, no question, if you can go out and find yourself one thing: Just find yourself a subject as good as Muhammad Ali and stay close to him for the next 40 or 50 years. So much of it is luck. For me to have had this amazing man who loved the camera the way that Ali did was a great gift.

PPD: You have a new book coming out called Relentless, correct?

NL: Yes, Relentless will be published in May. It’s been a great project to work on, and it took almost three years to put together. I worked with a very good writer and friend named Diane K. Shah. Diane was the first woman to be given a sports column in a major American newspaper, the LA Herald Examiner. Relentless is a memoir of my life, and it’s being published by the University of Texas Press. The subtitle is "The Stories Behind the Photographs," and it’s really just a series of anecdotes about the highlights and a few of the things that didn’t go so perfectly in my career. There are stories of what it’s like to be alone in the Oval Office with the president and what it’s like to be in the studio with Muhammad Ali or what it’s like to get Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird together for a photo shoot. I hope people are going to like it. I’m very happy with the way it’s worked out.


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