Luck has so much to do with great photography and Neil seems to wear its mantle as if touched by a magician’s wand. A case in point: his famous picture of Muhammad Ali standing over the fallen Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, May 1965. The editors of Sports Illustrated had sent Neil along with a fellow photographer, Herb Scharfman, to cover the fight. The two were stationed on opposite sides of the ring. In Neil’s picture, framed by Ali’s legs, Scharfman is the balding man with the dark-rimed glasses who has half-risen out of his seat, his Rolliflex camera useless. At that shocking instant, the best Herb could hope for was a shot of Ali’s rear end.
In Lewiston, the knockout happened exactly where I wanted it to and my only thought was “Stay right there, Sonny! Please don’t get up!” Part of being a successful photographer is being lucky enough to be in the right spot at the right time like I was, but a more important part is not missing when you’re in that spot. I got very lucky at the Ali-Liston fight, but what I’m proudest of is that I didn’t miss.
Not a bad photo at all—good enough, in fact, to go out on the wire and be featured on front pages throughout the country. But look at both pictures. What makes only one iconic? Partly (as noted by photography editor David Schonauer), it’s the color and clarity of Leifer’s Ektrachrome over Rooney’s black-and-white Tri-X film. Similarly, there’s Leifer’s Rolleiflex camera, as opposed to Rooney’s 35mm SLR — which is a jargony way of saying that Leifer ended up with a big square, not Rooney’s rectangle. Look at both frames — isn’t the square essential? Its solid structure supports, reflects Ali’s strength; more importantly, it captures the blackness above the man.