Neil Leifer: Master Of The Iconic Sports Image

More than 100 million people will be glued to television screens around the globe at the moment a kicker’s foot launches a football into the air to start Super Bowl 50. Football has come a long way since its humble beginnings, when grown men were kicking and tossing around an actual inflated pig’s bladder. There to document almost every hard-fought yard was Neil Leifer. His book Guts and Glory: The Golden Age of American Football, 1958-1978 (Taschen) reveals the incredible skills it took to capture the game in the years before superfast motordrives and autofocus lenses.

Leifer’s 15 other books demonstrate his photographic prowess covering sporting events ranging from the Olympics to heavyweight title fights, in addition to general news coverage. But it was a football game in 1958 that kicked off his career, if you will.

The date was December 28, Leifer’s 16th birthday. But he never could have imagined the gift he was going to receive later that day. Leifer would, almost accidentally, freeze for all eternity the decisive moment at the conclusion of what sportswriters call the greatest football game of all time, the 1958 National Football League Championship between the Baltimore Colts and the New York Giants at Yankee Stadium.

Earlier in the season, Leifer became aware that on game days the Army Veterans Hospital in the Bronx would bus in dozens of disabled wheelchair-bound former soldiers to the game. Leifer volunteered to wheel the vets to their positions on the field along the outfield wall. He was stuck behind one end zone for the entire game, but it turned out to be the right one.

Leifer snuck a Yashica Mat camera, what he calls “a poor man’s Rolleiflex,” into the stadium to photograph the game because he didn’t have press credentials. He depressed the shutter as Colts running back Alan Ameche rushed into the end zone from one yard out to secure the Colts 23-17 victory in the first NFL playoff sudden death overtime game in the league’s history. The touchdown would end the game, but launch one of the most dynamic and prolific careers in the history of photography.

Leifer sold his photos to Sports Illustrated, which led to him becoming a regular contributor. By age 19, he had his first SI cover, an action shot of Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle. He joined the magazine as a staffer and worked there for nearly two decades until 1978, when he moved over to TIME magazine. By the time he left TIME Inc., in 1990, Leifer had more than 200 Sports Illustrated, TIME and People magazine covers to his name.

DPP: Why are the 1960s considered the Golden Age of football?

Neil Leifer: The decade began with the creation of the American Football League, which eventually merged with the National Football League at the end of the decade. So it wasn’t one league, it was two. They were way behind baseball in terms of interest for most American sports enthusiasts. Baseball was the national sport, the national pastime. Today, there’s no question that football has become the national pastime. Just compare the number of viewers of the Super Bowl to the World Series.

When you look at the pictures in my book, you see the players and coaches that built the game into the national pastime—Sam Huff, Frank Gifford, Y.A. Tittle, Johnny Unitas, Jim Brown, Joe Namath, Vince Lombardi, Don Shula. These were the men who created the excitement that the game generated in the ’60s. The NFL had been around for a number of years, but nobody cared. When I started shooting football, the Giants played in the 1958 and 1959 championships. But you could walk up to Yankee Stadium on any Sunday and no matter who they were playing, you could buy a ticket. Look at my pictures from that time, and you’ll see empty seats in the end zones and empty low seats. There were more than 30,000 empty seats at the first Super Bowl—at the time called the AFL-NFL World Championship Game—at the L.A. Coliseum in 1967. How much money and how difficult is it to buy a ticket for the Super Bowl these days? Even during the regular season, I don’t think there’s a prayer of going out to the Meadowlands and buying a ticket on game day for a Jets or Giants game unless you get one from a scalper. The road to the game becoming the national pastime started in the late ’50 and ’60s.

DPP: How difficult was it to cover the action in the days before autofocus?

Leifer: It wasn’t difficult. In football, there’s potentially a great photograph on every single play. Compare it to baseball—I love baseball and grew up a huge Brooklyn Dodger fan—if you have a great pitchers’ duel, what do you shoot? A couple of pictures of the pitchers and some of the frustrated batters. But what else do you shoot? There are moments like a runner trying to take out a second baseman or shortstop to break up a double play or a slam-bang play where a runner is trying to knock the ball out of the catcher’s glove at home plate. But how often do these things happen?

In baseball, you’re in a fixed position such as the photographer’s pit on either the first base side or the third base side or upstairs, and you sit there with a long lens and wait for the action. In football, you can make the action happen. Photographers have the opportunity to go up and down the sidelines and decide where they’re going to be and what focal length lens they want to use.

DPP: But when you started covering football, you had to quickly manually focus long lenses with shallow depths of field on constantly moving subjects. That must have been difficult.

Many photographers are comfortable spending a career with a spot on the sidelines shooting the same photos day in and day out. Leifer has always looked for new angles and fresh approaches.

Leifer: That’s what separated the big boys from the rest of the pack. Walter Iooss said it best; he’s a good friend and was my peer and competitor during the years I worked at Sports Illustrated. Walter said that autofocus added 20 years to his career. For football, boy, it works. Is it easier today? Yes. But I don’t want to diminish what the guys are shooting today. They’re so damn good. I’m blown away by some of their pictures.

What separated the big boys when I shot was hand-eye coordination. I was pretty good at it. Walter was the best I had ever seen at it. John Biever, who will be shooting his 50th straight Super Bowl, is phenomenal with his hand-eye coordination working with a 600mm lens. He can track a player coming at him and have the whole damn play in focus. So would Walter. I was very good at it. Jim Drake was very good at it. What separated the really top photographers from the second tier was that ability to focus a 600mm lens at a player running right at you or capturing a shot of a pass receiver just as the ball is coming into his fingers. That was hard to do in the days of manual focus. Today, the cameras are so good that they take a lot of the hard work out of the equation. But even with autofocus, it’s still about the photographer behind the lens.

DPP: What were your go-to settings?

Leifer: It always depended on what the conditions were. Was there enough light to get away with 1/1000th of a second? Most of t
he time, I was shooting at or near wide open with a 400mm ƒ/4 Kilfitt or a 600mm ƒ/5.6 Kilfitt lens. The 300mm Topcon ƒ/2.8 was the most used lens when that came out. Not only could you shoot in daytime with it, but it was a necessity at night. You shot at whatever settings the conditions allowed you to go.

Documentary-style sports photography didn’t exist before Leifer brought his journalistic approach to football coverage.

How far could you push the film? The 400-speed Ektachrome could be pushed one stop. If you started going further than 800, you began having trouble. If it was a news story for Sports Illustrated that had to be turned around quickly, you had to shoot Ektachrome because you couldn’t have Kodachrome processed on the weekend. When we had beautiful sunny days, there was nothing as good as Kodachrome, even when it was 10 ASA at the very beginning. Fortunately, it soon went to 25 and 64 ASA. If it wasn’t a news story that was going to run that week and I had the light, I would shoot with Kodachrome.

DPP: But regardless of the state of the art of the equipment and film, great pictures boiled down to the talent behind the lens.

Leifer: And being at the right spot at the right time, and not missing.

To see more of Neil Leifer’s photography, visit

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