Famed photographer Neil Leifer – whose iconic photography is currently on exhibit at the Sports Legend Museum – will tell you without hesitation, which of his many photographs is his favorite picture taken during his illustrious career. And it’s not one you might expect.
As an 18-year-old, Leifer used to help the disabled at Yankee Stadium on game days, then he would stick around and photograph sporting events. This afforded him the opportunity to capture the celebrated photo from what has been called the greatest football game, when in 1958 the Baltimore Colts defeated the New York Giants in overtime to win the NFL Championship. Leifer, using a Yashica Mat camera, captured the image of Alan Ameche’s crushing touchdown that earned Baltimore the victory.
Thoughtful and down-to-earth, Leifer, now 70, is unassuming as he talks about his career accomplishments. He’s traveled the world, photographing famous people and events – many of those photographs have graced the covers of Sports Illustrated and Time magazine.
Yet Leifer is not completely sure of why he has been so successful. “I had a real passion for photography,” he said. “Why I was as good at it? I don’t know.”
He remains modest about luck, saying all good photographers have to have it, and he uses his famous Muhammad Ali versus Sonny Liston boxing picture as an example. The image shows a victorious Ali pumping a gloved fist to his chest as he fiercely stands over a stunned Sonny Liston. It also displays his fellow Sports Illustrated photographer across the ring with little more than a view of Ali’s posterior.
But what makes a good sports shooter rise about the average? “When you’re in the right seat at the right place at the right time the really good photographer doesn’t miss,” he explained. “I guess if you want to summarize why I’ve been successful – I haven’t missed a lot when I’ve been lucky.”
Leifer’s favorite photograph is not from the famed Ali versus Liston fight, but it does involve Ali. It was a picture taken from the rafters of the Astrodome looking down on the boxing ring during a bout with Cleveland Williams. Ali is walking cleanly to his corner as Williams lays splayed out on the white canvas ringed by spectators and press. The referee counting him out.
The reason it’s his favorite picture: “Why?” he responds. “It can never be taken again. Today the ring is a series of ads. You’d never get the clean canvas.”
The 54-picture photography exhibit “Images We Remember-The World of Neil Leifer continues through October 2014 at Sports Legends Museum. The museum will host a Behind the Lens event with Leifer September 28, where he will discuss his photography career, the transition to producing directing films and answer audience questions.