Neil Leifer (born 1942) is one of the most significant boxing photographers of all time, having captured some of the twentieth century’s most iconic and memorable images of the sport. His photographs are celebrated for their brutal honesty and seemingly candid nature. Leifer’s career has been a highly successful one with works appearing in various respected publications such as LIFE, Time, Sports Illustrated and Newsweek.
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Neil Leifer’s photography career has spanned over fifty years since becoming a professional whilst still in his teens. Growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, Leifer was introduced to photography through the Henry Street Settlement House, a charity which also initiated a young Stanley Kubrick into the arts. During his teenage years in the 1950s, Leifer would gain free admission to New York Giants games by wheeling the chairs of handicapped patrons into the stadium. Selling his images to Sports Illustrated towards the end of the decade, the magazine’s editors quickly picked up on Leifer’s talent and he received his first cover shot in 1962, at the age of 19.
In 1965, Leifer was one of the only two photographers with colour film in his camera when Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in Lewiston, Maine, producing an image which has gone on to become one of the most memorable sports photographs of the mid-century. A year later Leifer could be found placing a camera in the rafters of the Houston Astrodrome, in order to achieve a symmetrically perfect image of the canvas for the 1966 heavyweight title fight between Cleveland Williams and Muhammad Ali.
Leifer eventually became a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated before leaving in 1978 to become a staffer for Time magazine. In 1988 he was made a contributing photographer at LIFE magazine and spent the next two years dividing his time between the publications. When Leifer left Time Inc. in 1990, his photographs had appeared on over 200 Sports Illustrated, Time, and People covers; at that point, the most ever published of one photographer’s work in Time Inc. history.
Leifer has travelled all over the world on sports assignments, photographing sixteen Olympic Games, four FIFA World Cups, countless World Series games, the first twelve Super Bowls and every important heavyweight title fight since Ingemar Johansson beat Floyd Patterson in 1959. He has photographed his favourite subject, Muhammad Ali, on almost 60 different occasions, covering his biggest fights and over 30 one-on-one studio sessions.
Selected Achievements and Awards
Leifer has published sixteen books, nine of which have been collections of his sports photographs. Sports, his 1978 Abrams book, is considered by many to be the quintessential sports photography book and was the first of its kind. His two most recent, Ballet in the Dirt and Guts and Glory both published by Taschen, showcase the very best of Leifer’s professional baseball and football photographs. Relentless: The Stories behind the Photographs, Leifer’s autobiography told through fifty of his most iconic pictures, was published in 2016.
The photographer was the 2006 recipient of the prestigious Lucie Award for Achievement in Sports Photography. In 2008 he was honoured for his outstanding contribution to Time Inc. journalism with The Britton Hadden Lifetime Achievement Award. Whilst Leifer is now a full-time filmmaker, producer and director, he still enjoys capturing extraordinary moments at championship fights; “Boxing,” writes Leifer, “is the one sport I still love shooting.”