Having over 200 of his photographs featured as Sports Illustrated, TIME, LIFE, and People magazine covers, including many shots considered to be some of the greatest sports photos of all time, one would expect Neil Leifer to have a certain air of confidence about him. Surely, the man behind the lens that captured Secretariat’s historic 1973 Triple Crown victory and Muhammad Ali in all of his glory would consider himself at least a highly-skilled photographer.
However, Neil Leifer’s video interview with the Baltimore Sun at the opening of his massive 54-picture exhibit at the Sports Legends Museum at Camden Yards, highlights Leifer’s humility and work ethic more than his skill with a camera:
Leifer discovered his love for photography when he was 12 or 13, and he took his first iconic photograph at the 1958 NFL Championship game between the Giants and the Colts. He got in for free after volunteering to push a war veteran in a wheelchair into the stadium and then waited around the end-zone for the perfect moment while the security guards corralled drunken fans.
When Alan Ameche of the Baltimore Colts scored the game-winning touchdown, Leifer was ready.
Through that experience and many others like it during his 50-year career, Leifer learned the difference between a really good sports photographer and “just the average shooter.”
“You have to be very lucky… and when you’re in the right seat and in the right place at the right time, a really good photographer doesn’t miss,” Leifer said. “I guess if you wanted to summarize why I’ve been successful, I haven’t missed a lot when I’ve been lucky.”
In a Huffington Post Sports interview, Leifer called sports photography—and particularly photography of highly-active sports like football and basketball—“a game of chess,” a strategic balancing act between finding the right spot with the most potential for a good shot and anticipating what might happen beforehand so that when the moment comes, the photographer is ready.
“I don’t think I’m particularly gifted,” Leifer said. “I think I had to work twice as hard.”
As a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated, Leifer photographed 16 Olympic Games, the first 12 Super Bowls, more than a dozen Kentucky Derbies, 4 FIFA World Cups, and a myriad of World Series games and iconic boxing title fights. He spent the last 12 years of his professional photography career working for TIME magazine, where he hoped to make a name for himself as a photojournalist by shooting “everything from the Pope to Charles Manson” (HuffPost Sports).
“I got pigeonholed very early as a sports photographer… but I wish I had just been known as a great photojournalist that could do anything,” Leifer said.
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