Forty Years of Knockout Shots
By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2001
The photograph Neil Leifer chose to hang in his own living room is not his most famous picture. It is not the shot of Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston in the ring, having just knocked Liston out with one punch.
That picture is the one Leifer chose to put on the cover of his new book, "The Best of Leifer," which includes 179 photographs and spans his more than 40-year career as a photographer for Sports Illustrated, Time and Life magazines. It is the one Sports Illustrated's editor chose to grace the cover of a special issue titled "The Century's Greatest Sports Photos." And that picture is the signature shot in the exhibit of Leifer's work that opened yesterday at Georgetown's Govinda Gallery and will remain up until Jan. 26.
It is not Leifer's favorite. It isn't even his favorite shot of Ali -- the man Leifer is most famous for photographing, having chronicled his life for nearly four decades. No, the picture that makes Leifer smile is the one now hanging, alone, in the corner of the room in Govinda Gallery. It is shot from above, 80 feet over the ring. Sprawled in one corner is Cleveland Williams. In the other, Ali stands with his arms raised in triumph. The apron is white, unblemished by logos or advertisements. The champ is -- as was traditional back when the picture was taken, in 1966 -- wearing white trunks, with Williams in black. Three rows of boxing writers encircle the perfect white square.
"I look at my photographs -- even the good ones -- and I always see things that, if I had the chance to do it over, I'd do differently," Leifer says, looking around at several of his other photographs. "This picture is the only picture I've taken in my life that I wouldn't change. It's the only one that worked perfectly."
At 58, Leifer has covered more Olympics, more Super Bowls, more Kentucky Derbies than he can count. He has taken thousands of photographs of Ali, nine of which appear in the 46-photograph exhibit. And while the majority of the pictures in the show are sports-related, Leifer made sure to mix in some of his work in political, celebrity and -- his personal passion -- military photography. There is an expansive portrait of Ed Koch with the New York skyline in the background, a shot of Sean Connery and Alec Baldwin on the set of "The Hunt for Red October" and a photo from North Vietnam of the battleship New Jersey, its guns in mid-fire.
"I've done 10 books," he says, "and this one is important to me because it's the first one that really includes non-sports photos. You get pigeonholed. That's why I moved to Time -- I wanted the opportunity to do something else."
He will forever be known, though, as the man who photographed Ali. Two walls of the exhibit are given over to Ali photographs -- some in color, some in black and white; some action shots taken of the boxer in the ring, others portraits. In them, you see so many faces of Ali -- his youthful hope, his almost mocking ferocity, his glow of triumph.
Looking at Leifer's sports photographs is often like looking at the sports themselves: The arc of Jackie Joyner-Kersee's arm as she prepares to throw the javelin; the mud clinging to Joe Namath's uniform as he stands on the sidelines at Shea Stadium in 1974; Sandy Koufax's leap of joy at the close of the 1963 World Series.
The son of a New York postal worker, Leifer learned photography from watching several of his idols at work in the Life studio on West 54th Street, where he frequently delivered sandwiches from the Stage Deli.
"I was fascinated by what they did and how they did it," he says. "They'd end up yelling at me back at the deli because I'd go to deliver something there and I wouldn't come back."
He started selling photographs to Sports Illustrated when he was 16, and his exhibit includes a picture he took at 15, of Alan Ameche scoring the winning touchdown for the Baltimore Colts in the 1958 NFL Championship game. He got access to the sidelines at Yankee Stadium by volunteering regularly to help bring wheelchair-bound veterans into the stadium, with his camera hidden under his coat. It is an unusual picture. Instead of a tightly focused shot on Ameche and the play, the kind of picture that would appear in newspapers across the country the next day, Leifer's shot includes the backdrop of the stadium, the waving flags, the lights, the grayness of the day. The reason? He couldn't afford a camera with a zoom lens at the time.
"That picture still makes me stop and think, sometimes, about shooting things a different way, from a different angle," he says.
Leifer can tell the story behind each of the pictures that hangs in his exhibit, and some of the tales are complicated. Even in the messy, often unpredictable world of sports, Leifer was a planner.
"You wanted Neil on assignments where planning and forethought mattered," says Ray Cave, who was executive editor at Sports Illustrated during Leifer's tenure there, and brought Leifer over to Time when he became managing editor of that magazine in 1978.
"He wasn't a natural sort of click-and-shoot photographer. He'd get wonderful photographs because he'd thought everything through."
According to Cave, Leifer carried a book that told him where the sun would be at what time of day on fall Sundays in all the major football stadiums in the country. Perhaps his most famous shot -- the Ali knockdown -- was pure luck, because it happened right in his line of vision, but some of his best work came because he knew where to put a remote camera to shoot Secretariat as the horse came down the stretch at the close of the Kentucky Derby, or because he went to incredible lengths to create just the right image, with just the right background. A case in point is another one of his well-known photos, also in the exhibit: a portrait of legendary football coach Bear Bryant, chalk in hand, a play designed on the blackboard behind him. That picture was one of Leifer's 160 cover shots for Sports Illustrated (he also had 40 cover photographs for Time).
For the last seven or eight years, Leifer has been making the transition from photography to motion pictures. He has produced a few short movies and is currently negotiating a deal for a full-length picture. He also co-produced an upcoming HBO documentary on the iconic sports pictures of our time -- his Ali knockdown shot included -- and is the subject of a two-hour ESPN documentary due to air early next year.
"I only shoot two things now," says Leifer, who claims to have given up professional photography at this point. "My grandchildren and Ali. I can never say no to Ali."
Just a few months ago, Leifer shot a family portrait for Ali's wife, Lonnie, then went with Ali into his private ring for a few "action" shots. One of the pictures he took was a reproduction of his favorite photograph, the one that hangs on his living room wall. Only this time, it was Ali sprawled on the canvas, and his 10-year-old son standing over him in triumph. That picture made its way into Sports Illustrated, despite Leifer's self-declared retirement from the photography gig.
"I couldn't help myself," he says.