A 'Relentless' Sports Photographer Explains How He Got His Shots Neil Leifer is behind some of the defining sports images of the past 60 years. In his book Relentless, he describes the special mix of luck and skill that helped him capture those memorable moments.

A 'Relentless' Sports Photographer Explains How He Got His Shots

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/476893044/477072210" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


If you have a favorite sports photo from the past 60 years, it's very possible that Neil Leifer took it - Muhammad Ali standing over Sonny Liston flat on his back, Ali bellowing his right arm bent or Alan Ameche of the Baltimore Colts plunging over the goal line to beat the New York Giants in the so-called greatest game ever played in 1958.

Working for Sports Illustrated and Time, Neil Leifer has collected many stories along with those memorable shots, and he's put them together in a new book called "Relentless." He joins us from New York. Neil, welcome to the program.

NEIL LEIFER: Hi, Robert. Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

SIEGEL: And when did you first realize that you wanted to be a photographer? Was there a shot that you saw as a kid that made you think this is what I want to do?

LEIFER: No. I - listen, I was a very good student, and, of course, my parents - being typical Jewish, lower eastside, uneducated - they thought they had a budding doctor or lawyer. I quite honestly never knew there was a profession called photojournalism.

Photography was a hobby. I was a huge sports fan. I mean, I lived and breathed the Brooklyn Dodgers. And I couldn't afford to get into any of the games. Certainly, I couldn't afford to buy a ticket to any of the things, the events that I ultimately got to cover. Yeah, I used to just pinch myself. Someone is paying me to do something I love to do. It was just going to be a passing hobby that I would grow out of. And one day I woke up, and, in fact, I realized you could make a living doing this. And the rest sort of is history.

SIEGEL: Well, some of your most famous pictures are of Muhammad Ali. And I want you to talk about it. For one thing, there's a famous shot you took of him and Sonny Liston.

LEIFER: It's without question my best-known picture. And, you know - and I like to think that it's a wonderful photograph. But there's a whole lot of luck in sports photography. And one always sounds very modest when you throw around a word like luck. But in this case, it's really true. I was clearly in the right seat. The photographer between Ali's legs was looking up at his rear end was the other Sports Illustrated ring-side photographer who was a hell of a good boxing photographer.

SIEGEL: (Laughter) And you write that it actually isn't your favorite picture involving Ali. That would be an overhead shot of the ring when it's - who? - Muhammad Ali versus Cleveland Williams.

LEIFER: Oh, no question. Listen, I collect other people's photographs, and my apartment has sort of become a little museum of my collection. The great Life magazine photographers of the '40s and '50s and '60s and Sports Illustrated photographers - they were my heroes. I mean, other than the Brooklyn Dodgers, these were my heroes. Those are the pictures I have on my wall with one exception. And that is my Ali-Williams picture. And I love it because it's the only picture I've ever taken that there is nothing I would change.

SIEGEL: Well, describe what you did here. You're taking a picture. You decide you're going to get a picture overhead that'll show us the whole ring. You're hoping, I guess, they'll be a knockout, so there'll be one guy on the canvas. But as you say, you know, there could've been just a picture of two guys, you know, touching gloves at the beginning of the bout. And how high up was that camera?

LEIFER: What's so special about the picture - photographers have been putting remote cameras, which is what we call it. It's a - the camera was fired - they're wired to your seat. And I shot that with a foot pedal, I think. But they were always put in the lighting rig usually 20 to 25 feet over the ring.

So the photographers - if you put a camera in the middle you could never have gotten the whole ring unless you used a fisheye lens later on which gave you a distorted ring. It looked more like a basketball than a square ring. Well, the Cleveland Williams-Ali fight was the first fight held in what was a brand-new type of arena. It was the Houston Astrodome which at the time was called the Eighth Wonder of the World.

And the lighting rig was this gondola - is what they called it. And the gondola was 80 feet above the ring. That gave you the possibility of putting a wide-angle lens up that high without any distortion in getting the entire ring, the symmetry of the ring and the press rows around it, unlike the Ali-Liston picture which was a lot of luck. With Cleveland Williams, there was no such problem. I knew this was going to be a great picture.

SIEGEL: But you say there is no luck involved. Do I have it right that you only had 12 shots with that camera?

LEIFER: Yeah, but that's a lot of shots, but I also had a recycled time on my strobe lights.


LEIFER: It lit the ring of probably eight, maybe nine seconds. So you really couldn't shoot more than one shot on a knockdown anyway.

SIEGEL: Neil, in the age of digital photography and the age of smartphones that are great cameras, the idea of being limited to 12 shots in a minute would seem constraining to people nowadays.

LEIFER: Well, yeah, but you could still have the choice. This was lit with strobe lights that even with wonderful quality you get with digital cameras, you can blow my picture up 50 feet squared if you chose to, and the quality is fabulous.

If I were doing that picture today, it is very unlikely I would use strobes. I would - the digital quality is so good. But it would still then be the lighting that they've provided me with. I was able to light it dramatically the way I wanted it lit. So there was an advantage. And then you would still only be able to take one picture at a time.

SIEGEL: Given the revolution that's taken place in imaging and photography and, you know, the idea of how quickly you can get a picture published and transmitted from one coast to another. Do you envy people who are starting out in this technologically much more advanced and I would assume easier time for being in photography?

LEIFER: Well, first off, the big competition today is not the other photographers. What has made it so difficult - and it is extremely difficult - magazines are hurting financially. But more important, television does such a good job.

Once upon a time, certainly when I started, whether it was the remote camera - we're talking about the Ali-Williams picture - there is not a fight that HBO or Showtime does today that doesn't have that camera right in the middle looking straight down. And they can zoom and focus and tighten it or widen it or, you know - or pan the shot. They do such a good job that how do you come up with original pictures? When John Zimmerman photographed Wilt Chamberlain in the early '60s, maybe '61 with a camera through the backboard through the glass partition...

SIEGEL: I remember the shot. I remember that shot.

LEIFER: They were the great - nobody had ever seen that before.


LEIFER: Today, there are four cameras on the backboard that television has at every game. That is what you're competing against. How do you give people something that's worth waiting for, you know, when the magazine comes out four days later when they've seen it instantly when it happened on television? They've seen it in slow motion. They've seen it, you know, in three different angles. And then at night on the news, they see a replay of it.

SIEGEL: And they've seen it with pretty high resolution, too, nowadays.

LEIFER: Oh, beautiful. Oh, fabulous. So by Wednesday when you get the Sports illustrated what is there to look forward to? The job that a Sports Illustrated photographer has today is to make it worth waiting for. And then - and I think they do a pretty good job of it. They're really - they're quite good, but it's hard. I mean, to be a photographer today at Sports Illustrated is a whole lot harder than it was when I was there.

SIEGEL: Neil Leifer, thanks for talking with us today.

LEIFER: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Photographer Neil Leifer's new book is called, "Relentless: The Stories Behind The Photographs." And you can see Neil Leifer's favorite photo from that Ali-Williams fight on our Facebook page. We are @NPRATC.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.