Photographers You Should Know: Neil Leifer

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In the continuation of our journal series, “Photographers You Should Know” we highlight the timeless sports photography of Neil Leifer. We've curated a small subset of Mr. Leifer's photographs on our Pintrest page

Unless you’re an avid Sports Illustrated reader, Neil Leifer is not necessarily a name that quickly comes to mind when you think of the great American photographers.  But his images are immensely iconic and deeply rooted into the American sporting experience of the last fifty years or so.  Mr. Leifer started his career in the early 60’s and has since had his work displayed in some of the most venerable publications of the last half century, including LIFE, Time, and most notably Sports Illustrated.   While he gained recognition as a sports photographer, at the root of Mr. Leifer’s work lies a photojournalist who just so happens to document sports.  His images tell stories and they instantly take you back to some of the greatest sporting moments in American history.

There are two photographs that I would love to have hanging side-by-side one day.  They are both absolutely perfect and both involve Muhammad Ali.   Both are completely different in the way they are composed yet they tell a similar story of strength, power, and victory.  I've never really been a boxing fan and I wasn't even close to being born when these photographs were taken, but they speak to me and take me to a time when one of the world's most iconic people was at his pinnacle.  



In Mr. Leifer’s coverage of Muhammad Ali I find the juxtaposition of Mr. Leifer and Ali very interesting.  Mr. Leifer is an un-imposing figure and as about as “normal” looking as they come.  Ali on the other hand is about as physically imposing as they come and his personality was just as big and boisterous as his stature.  Lots of photographers covered Ali at his prime, yet Mr. Leifer captured the most iconic images.  There’s not an obvious conclusion to draw from this, but one interesting tidbit that Mr. Leifer often discusses is his work ethic.  In several interviews, Mr. Leifer says he was no more talented than any other photographers of his era, he just worked harder (and capitalized on the chances he was given).   Maybe that’s what ultimately strings Ali and Leifer together.  To be at the pinnacle of their field they both had to work hard to get there.  When given the chance at greatness they both took advantage of it.  For Ali, it was a opening in his opponents defense, for Leifer it was a split second moment when all the elements of a compelling photograph came together.

“I don’t think I’m particularly gifted.  I think I had to work twice as hard.”

Here's a quick video from an exhibit of Mr. Leifer's work last year...of course I focus mainly on the framing :)

The World of Neil Leifer from Baltimore Sun's The Darkroom on Vimeo.


Check out more of Mr. Leifer’s work on his website.  I would also suggest picking up one of his books.  I own a second-hand copy of “The Best of Leifer” that I greatly enjoy.  

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