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The Best of Leifer
Famed Sports Photographer Neil Leifer Reflects on a Life in Pictures

Steve Keene interview Listen as John Ydstie talks with Neil Leifer.

photo gallery View a selection of pictures from the book The Best of Leifer.

Feb. 10, 2002 -- According to Neil Leifer, the golden age of sports photography -- indeed, of all news photography -- is over.

Muhammad Ali in full victorious glory.
Photo: Neil Leifer

That may sound odd coming from a man who has done so much to advance the profession, but Leifer means it. "The golden era was then, and it isn’t now," he tells John Ydstie for Weekend Edition Sunday. As a collector of photography, he notes that most of his holdings are "from the "'40s, '50s, '60s, some '70s -- very little '80s and '90s."

A glance through the book The Best of Leifer goes a long way toward confirming what he says. There, one finds the famed shot of Muhammad Ali with a victory snarl on has face, right arm crossed over his chest, standing over a prone Sonny Liston in their 1965 bout. There one also finds the well-known shot of Joe Namath as a shaggy-maned warrior: mud-covered, panchoed, standing in the muck on the sidelines at Shea Stadium during a 1974 New York Jets game, a receiver at his ear and his helmet in his hand.

One rarely sees still photos like those these days -- the kind that grab your attention and hold it, and tell you as much about the subject as any 1,000-word article.

The reason? Television, says Leifer. Over time, our senses have become so deadened by the constant barrage of images, moving and still, that no single one of them has much staying power. Liefer says great photos are still being produced by his former employers -- Sports Illustrated and Time magazine -- "but they don’t have the same impact pictures had in the past."

Unlike his photo subjects, Leifer is not frozen in time. He has embraced television, directing feature-length films and short subjects. But he also looks back fondly at that golden era.

"I had a wonderful run," he says.

Other Resources

•More Leifer photos can be found at the Peter Fetterman Gallery Web site.

•Check out some of Leifer's film work on