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Ali was my greatest subject, says iconic photographer Leifer

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A great image is timeless and legendary former Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer has had quite a few of them since he first picked up a camera as a teenager in the 1950s.

Ask him to name his favourite sport and sportsperson and without hesitation the answer will be boxing and Muhammad Ali, with whom he has formed a strong friendship and mutual respect over the years. Two dozen of Leifer’s favourite images, many of them of boxing and Ali, will be on display at the Masterworks Museum’s Rick Faries Gallery, the collection of images is fittingly called “Knockouts!”

Leifer is on the Island until this weekend and will host a lecture and slide show this evening at Masterworks Museum when he will talk about his work and share with the audience slides and anecdotal stories of the process of photographing US athletes who medalled at the London Olympics, an assignment from NBC that he “couldn’t refuse” even though he is now a full-time filmmaker, producer and director. A boxing assignment is always something he would find difficult to turn down.

“By far my favourite sport was boxing and the boxing pictures are my favourite for two reasons,” said Leifer. “Number one there has never been an athlete like Muhammad Ali, I think he is the greatest athlete that has ever lived,” said Leifer. “But he also loved the camera and loved the press.

“If a high school newspaper sent a kid out Muhammad would give that kid as much time as anybody, he was that way with everybody.”

Ali has been living with Parkinson’s disease for many years, but Leifer does not believe the condition came about because of boxing, as many have said.

“His wife says no, his doctors claim it has nothing to do with boxing which is not to say that fighters don’t get dementia, but that doesn’t appear to be what his problem is. All you have to do is look at how (actor) Michael J. Fox, (who also has Parkinson’s) has deteriorated and he didn’t take any punches. His has the same equilibrium problems, same speech problems. There has never been an athlete like Ali and I was lucky enough that my career and his career paralleled, we are a year apart in age.

“He turned 70 a year ago January and I spent four days with him in Arizona where he is living. When he takes his medication he’s okay. What people forget about his condition today is he has had Parkinson’s since 1980 ... 33 years now. That was when doctors first began seeing symptoms of Parkinson’s Syndrome that he had originally and now he’s got full blown Parkinson’s and has had it for many years.”

Leifer counts 35 Ali fights that he has covered, including the big ones, Zaire, Manila and all three fights against Joe Frazier.

“When I first started photographing Ali it wasn’t that I was in love with Ali, I was a kid and wanted to be a hero to my boss, to come back with a great story,” he stated.

“With somebody like Tiger Woods or LeBron James, you get five minutes, ten at the most. They don’t need the money or the publicity so ‘I’ll give you ten minutes and you do the best you can’. With Muhammad, not only did he give you 20 minutes or a half-hour but at the end of the half an hour it he is suggesting things to you. I had sessions that went two and a half to three hours. Muhammad was a great self publicist and he treated everyone the same.”

Leifer was just a teenager growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side when he discovered photography through a project put on by the Henry Street Settlement Club to keep youngsters off the street and away from drugs.

“Not that I was a prime candidate for gangs or drugs but there was a lot of it on the Lower East Side,” Leifer recalled.

“I joined the camera club at the Henry Street Settlement and went two nights a week but my interest was playing basketball in the gym. I was a big sports fan, a big Brooklyn Dodger fan and what I really enjoyed was going to the gym, but they wouldn’t allow you to go to the gym five nights a week so some kids took music lessons, some painting classes and we had a camera club. I began taking pictures as a 12 or 13 year old as a hobby but my parents thought they had a young doctor or lawyer. I was a good student.

“I really got excited about taking pictures and enjoyed it. I started with a cheap 35mm camera and when I was 16 I bought a Yashica Mat reflex camera, a poor man’s roloflex It just took off and one day I discovered that people would actually pay me to do something that I enjoyed doing. This was the late 1950s and it was the heyday for journalism in terms of magazines and I got excited about seeing my pictures published and one thing led to another. It is fair to say that I was in the right place at the right time and capitalised on it.”

Leifer, who work has appeared widely in such publications as the Sunday Evening Post, Look, LIFE, Newsweek, Time and Sports Illustrated where he got his big break when still in his teens.

“I was a pretty tenacious young kid and where I come from if you wanted a break you had to make it and I was pretty aggressive,” he says.

“I would bring pictures up to the magazines, mainly Sports Illustrated, they would get rejected and two days later I would come back with more pictures and one day they began publishing small ones and then bigger ones, not the cover or lead story but secondary pieces. Then one day my pictures became good enough that they began giving me assignments.

“I started submitting pictures at 16 and by 19 I was doing very well. I had my first cover in 1961 when I was 19-years-old and had two in a row.”

Leifer has shot countless sports and sporting events over the years, including 16 Olympic Games. He has covered all of the American sports as well as rugby in New Zealand between the All Blacks and France ... even cricket at Lords.

“They are all challenging and the duller they are the harder it is,” said Leifer who has published 16 books, nine of collections of his sports photrographs.

“For example I always found baseball very difficult to photograph. When the action happens, say a collision at home plate, anybody can take a good picture or when the short stop is leaping over the sliding runner who is trying to stop him from completing the double play ... good picture. But when two great pictures are out there and nobody is getting a hit and there are no base runners, what do you photograph, as opposed to football or boxing, basketball or hockey.

“The hard sports are the ones where nothing happens. The other difficult sports are the ones where 15,000 people go shhh the moment Tiger (Woods) is about to hit the ball, same thing with tennis. In sports it is nice when you don’t know what is going to happen.”

And yes, there is an element of luck in sports photography, Leifer concedes. “How do you tell the difference between a good sports photographer and a great sports photographer?” Leifer asks, before pointing to the photo of the famous Ali knockout of Sonny Liston in 1965.

“With the great ones you have to get lucky. I happened to be on the right side of the ring. This guy here, between Ali’s legs, is the other Sports Illustrated photographer who got Ali’s rear end. With the great ones when they get lucky they don’t miss. That’s the key.”

Down for the count: Overhead photo from Neil Leifer at the Houston Astrodome of a victorious Muhammad Ali walking to a neutual corner after knocking out Cleveland Williams in the 3rd round to retain the Heavyweight title in 1966. This is one of Leifer's all-time favourite images.
(Photo by Mark Tatem) Former Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer stands in front of some of his most memorable images that are on display in the Rick Faries Gallery at the Masterworks Museum at Botanical Gardens

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Published May 03, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated May 02, 2013 at 10:42 pm)

Ali was my greatest subject, says iconic photographer Leifer

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