Leifer at the LBJ Presidential Library in 2016
December 28, 1942|
New York City, United States
Early life and education
Neil Leifer grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in New York City. At the age of thirteen, Leifer was introduced to photography through the Henry Street Settlement House, which offered free classes to the poor children of the neighborhood. Leifer began taking sports pictures, since it combined the two things that he liked. Along with Leifer, the photography group at the Settlement House produced three other photographers: John Iacono, Manny Millan, and Stanley Kubrik.
When he wasn't doing photography as a youth, Leifer had odd jobs, such as shining shoes and delivering sandwiches. Eventually, he saved enough money to buy his first camera.
As a boy in New York City, Leifer would gain free admission to New York Giants games by pushing the wheelchairs of handicapped patrons into the stadium. Using his free ticket and a camera, hei hurt. Gi would then position himself on the field with the photographers. Leifer gained free admission to the December 28th, 1958 NFL title game between the Giants and Baltimore Colts. This game became famous as the first overtime game in league history, and is often referred to as the "Greatest Game Ever Played." Leifer, on his sixteenth birthday, caught several images of the game-winning touchdown which he sold to Sports Illustrated. Sports Illustrated's editors liked Leifer's work and he quickly became a boy wonder at the magazine. He had his first cover shot in 1962 at age 19.
Leifer was also known for taking risks. For the 1966 heavyweight title fight between Cleveland Williams and Muhammad Ali, he placed a camera in the rafters of the Houston Astrodome in order to get a shot of the canvas when the victor knocked out his competition. It has been said that it is the only photo Neil Leifer took himself that is hanging in his house, also he regards this as his favorite photograph from a 40-year professional career. His shot of Ali and a defeated Williams has been seen by millions and was voted the greatest sport photo ever by The Observer.
A year earlier, Leifer was one of the only two photographers with color film in his camera when Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, and his image of the moment has become not just one of his most famous photos, but one of the most memorable sports photos of all time – seen by many as the greatest sports photograph in history.
Leifer photographed seven Olympic Games for the magazine and is best known for having followed Muhammad Ali's career from beginning to end. 170 of his pictures have been published on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
In 1978, Leifer left sports for a wider range of assignments with Time Magazine and produced 40 covers for the magazine. His cover subjects have included, President Ronald Reagan and Vice President George Bush, Alabama football coach Bear Bryant, National Rifle Association President Joe Foss, Statue of Liberty's 100th birthday celebration, actors Burt Reynolds and Clint Eastwood, Pope John Paul II's visit to America, Heavyweight Champion Mike Tyson, New York City Mayor Ed Koch, The Space Shuttle Columbia, President Jimmy Carter, The Animals of Africa, Olympian Carl Lewis, and actor Paul Newman.
In 1992, Leifer covered both the Winter Olympic Games in Albertville, France and the Summer Olympic Games in Barcelona, Spain. The 2000 Summer Olympic Games in Sydney, Australia was the fifteenth Olympic Games he has covered.
In later years, Leifer gradually reduced his photography workload, turning his attention to films, although he has been known to come out of retirement for a special cover shoot for Sports Illustrated on rare occasions.
Filmmaker and documentarian
In recent years, Leifer has focused his creativity to the moving image. He is the director, producer and often writer, of noteworthy film including features, shorts, and documentaries.
In 2007, Leifer was shortlisted for the documentary film short Oscar for "Portraits of a Lady" which he directed, and co-produced with Walter Bernard.
Leifer's photography books
Leifer has published sixteen books - among them his best selling 1978 Abrams coffee table book, "Sports", a collection of sports photographs, the first of its kind. In 1985, Doubleday published Neil Leifer's "Sports Stars". 1992 saw the publication of three new coffee table books: "Muhammad Ali - Memories", published by Rizzoli, Safari, a collection of Africa animal pictures published by Reader's Digest, and a new collection of sports pictures, "Sports", published by Collins. In September 2001, "The Best of Leifer" was published by Abbeville Press. The book is a retrospective of Leifer's 40 years as a photojournalist and showcases the best of his sports and non-sports photographs. Leifer's eleventh book, "Neil Leifer: Portraits", with an introduction by Tom Brokaw, was published by St. Ann’s Press in November 2003. In September 2006 Abbeville Press published "A Year in Sports", a 348-page coffee table book with an introduction by Frank Deford. In November 2007, TASCHEN published "Neil Leifer, Ballet in the Dirt: The Golden Age of Baseball", with an introduction by Ron Shelton. The book is a collection of Leifer’s baseball photographs of the 1960s and 1970s, the “Golden Age of Baseball”. In November 2008, TASCHEN published "Guts and Glory: The Golden Age of American Football 1958-1978", with an introduction by the late Los Angeles Times Sports columnist Jim Murray. The book is a collection of Leifer’s football photographs of the late 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. And in April 2016, the University of Texas Press published "Relentless: The Stories behind the Photographs", Leifer gives a behind the scenes look at the stories behind fifty of his most iconic pictures.
|1969||Dreadnought Returns||Baum Printing House|
|1970||Dreadnought Farewell||Kaye Publications|
|1976||The Mark Spitz Complete Book of Swimming||Crowell|
|1985||Neil Leifer’s Sports Stars||Doubleday|
|1987||US Naval Airpower – Supercarrier in Action||Motorbooks International|
|1988||USS New Jersey – The Navy's Big Guns: From Mothballs to Vietnam||Motorbooks International|
|1988||USS New Jersey – World War II To The Persian Gulf||Motorbooks International|
|1991||Muhammad Ali – Memories||Rizzoli|
|2001||The Best of Leifer||Abbeville Press|
|2003||Neil Leifer: Portraits||St. Ann's Press|
|2004||G.O.A.T. (Leifer was one of 2 principal photographers)||TASCHEN|
|2006||A Year in Sports||Abbeville Press|
|2007||Neil Leifer, Ballet in the Dirt: The Golden Age of Baseball||TASCHEN|
|2008||Neil Leifer, Guts and Glory: The Golden Age of American Football, 1958–1979||TASCHEN|
|2016||Relentless: The Stories behind the Photographs||University of Texas Press|
The Neil Leifer Picture Collection
The Neil Leifer Picture Collection contains photographs, B&W and color, taken over the last 45 years (mainly in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s) of most of the major sporting events throughout the world.
Among the highlights of the Collection are photographs, many of which have become iconic images from 16 Olympic Games (7 winter and 9 summer), 4 World Soccer Cups, 17 Kentucky Derbies, 15 Masters Golf Tournaments, countless World Series games, every NFL football Championship Game beginning in 1958 and running through the first 12 Super Bowl games. The Collection contains photographs of every important heavyweight title fight since Floyd Patterson beat Ingemar Johansson to regain the title in 1960. Most of the best known photographs of the world’s most recognizable sports hero, Muhammad Ali, are to be found in the NL Collection. The Ali pictures were taken over the last 45 years and include the two best known sports photographs of the 20th Century, Muhammad Ali standing over a KO’d Sonny Liston and a bird’s eye view looking down on a KO’d Cleveland Williams. The Ali vs. Williams photograph was chosen by the London Observer as the number one picture in a cover story titled “The World’s 50 Greatest Sports Photographs”. The Ali vs. Liston picture was chosen number two. The Ali pictures in the collection cover 35 of Ali’s fights including all 3 of the Frazier fights, the famous “Rumble in the Jungle” with George Foreman, all 3 Ken Norton fights and all the other highlights of Ali’s ring career. There are 35-40 posed sittings with Ali, which cover a period beginning in 1965 and as recent as June 2005. In addition to the posed Ali pictures, the Collection contains hundreds of posed photographs of athletes ranging from Mickey Mantle, Jim Brown, George Foreman, Sandy Koufax and Arnold Palmer. As for recent sports heroes, the Collection contains pictures taken in 2005 of Tiger Woods, Lance Armstrong, Derek Jeter, Sasha Cohen, Peyton Manning and many others.
- Journalism, Shirley Povich Center for Sports. "Still No Cheering in the Press Box: Neil Leifer". Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- "Neil Leifer On Being Good, Being Lucky And Nailing The Most Famous Photos In Sports". ThePostGame. 2011-12-23. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- dombonvissuto. "1958 NFL Championship Game Goalpost". SI.com. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- "A 'Relentless' Sports Photographer Explains How He Got His Shots". NPR.org. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- "Story behind sport's greatest photograph". NewsComAu. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- "Sports Illustrated Photographers". LoveToKnow. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- "Muhammad Ali knocks out Cleveland Williams at the Astrodome, Houston, 1968". rarehistoricalphotos.com. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- Muhammad Ali – 25 of the best photographs of the legendary boxer, theguardian.com.
- "The Best of Neil Leifer - The Digital Journalist". www.digitaljournalist.org. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- "5 Greatest Conspiracy Theories in Sports History". AthlonSports.com. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- "Strip Tease: An introduction to the strip camera, how Tom Dahlin made his, and how you can too.", Tom Dahlin, SportsShooter, 2008-08-18
- Neil Leifer, Sports! features several such images
- "Biography | Neil Leifer". neilleifer.com. Retrieved 2017-07-31.
- Gabriel Schechter and Ron Shelton, ed. Eric Kroll; Neil Leifer: Ballet in the Dirt: Baseball photography of the 1960s and 70s (Taschen 2007)
- George Plimpton; The Best of Leifer (Abbeville Publishing Group (Abbeville Press, Inc.) 2001)
- contributor Tom Brokaw; Neil Leifer: Portraits (St. Ann's Press 2003)}