Former editor-in-chief of L’Equipe Magazine, now a gallery owner specialized in sports photography, Jean-Denis Walter writes a regular column for Blind. This fourth installment is dedicated to one of his most illustrious unknowns.
You think you don’t know him, you’ve never heard his name, and yet if you read Blind, it’s because you have an interest in photography, and so at one point or another you must have come across Ali–Liston, the photograph that made him famous. If not in a book or in a magazine, you might have seen it printed on a mug, a T-shirt, or a baseball cap. In terms of popularity, it is to sports photography what the Mona Lisa is to painting.
We can see Muhammad Ali raging against his opponent Sonny Liston lying knocked out at his feet. Ali is hurling insults because in his mind Sonny is a coward for stealing his glory by “going down” too soon, after having received a seemingly harmless blow. It was the so-called “phantom punch.” Yet Liston would not get up: Ali is furious, he wants to win, but with panache—none of this sham. “Get up,” he seems to be mouthing, “you’re robbing me of my glory.” Many versions of this event have been passed around, including one that evokes an intervention by the mafia or by big bettors who supposedly had high stakes in a quick outcome and threatened Liston unless he played along.
My interpretation is different, simpler, and you only need to look at the following photo, Ali Liston Weigh-in, to understand. Taken at the moment of the weigh-in on the eve of the fight, it shows Sonny Liston intimidated, maybe even frightened by the arrogance and confidence of the young champion. It’s as if he felt he didn’t stand a chance. Looking at this photograph, one has no illusions about the outcome of the fight to follow.
Liston appears resigned, even frightened. He doesn’t dare look at Ali, keeps his nose to the ground and tries to stay out of sight. And there you have it. This sport is so tough that if you go into the ring believing you have no chance, then it’s a nightmare. You are totally blocked. To my mind, Sonny Liston didn’t get up because he knew he was going to be pounded, and he didn’t have the means to fight it. In a way, he put himself out of his misery.
If this fight did not make history for its drama, it did thanks to this magnificent photograph that does more than tell Ali’s story: it is Ali. Great sports photographers are not well known to the general public and even among free spirits. Their photographs sometimes make headlines, but they remain in the shadows and don’t get the recognition they deserve. My gallery’s whole raison d’être is to lend nobility to the genre, to spotlight the theme, and spread the word about these photographers.
Neil Leifer is a legend: he is acknowledged as one of the greatest sports photographers in history. His phenomenal career took off in 1960 when he became a professional photographer at age eighteen. He worked for Time, Life, and above all Sports Illustrated. As a teenager, this New York kid earned his way into Giants games by pushing disabled spectators’ wheelchairs to the edge of the field. He took advantage of this privileged access to take pictures. His first sale to Sports Illustrated was thus made through mischief, when he was barely sixteen. Ideally positioned outside the field, he took the image that came to commemorate the 1958 Superbowl Giants vs. Colts game: the photo of the victorious touch down.
At nineteen he made his first cover... His incredible career centered not only on the great American sports but also major international events: the Olympic Games, summer and winter, and the soccer World Cup. His favorite subject would always be the boxer Muhammad Ali, whom he photographed more than sixty times between his big fights and special events.
But let’s go back to Ali. If Ali–Liston is the Neil Leifer’s best-known photograph, the most incredible one is Ali–Williams overhead. This mythical image was made in 1966 at the Houston Astrodome during the bout between Muhammad Ali and Cleveland Williams. The photograph is as perfect as if it were re-enacted with stand-ins. Neil admits he got lucky. He couldn’t have foreseen the geometry of the bodies, the symmetry of the gestures, but he provoked it. When he arrived at the Astrodrome, he saw that the lighting ramps were much higher than usual. He spent the day attaching his camera to the ramp and running a wire along the wall to be able to release the shutter remotely. A day of installation and trial runs followed. But Neil worked in medium format (6X6), a camera that takes only 12-frame rolls and there is no way to advance the film remotely after each frame... No need to get anxious, just sit still and wait. Wait for the right moment. And in the second round... he takes this sumptuous photograph. To me this is one of the greatest photographs in history.
Neil also covered the Olympic Games on many occasions. His photographs have entered the Olympic history, as well as world history along with the “Black Power salute” at the Mexico City Olympics in 1968, where Tommie Smith and John Carlos, golden and bronze medalists in 200m sprint, raised black-gloved fists in support of the Black Panthers.
In 1972, Neil Leifer of course traveled to Munich to celebrate Mark Spitz, a larger-than-life American champion who had a monopoly on medals in swimming. Four years later, in Montreal, he photographed a young girl from Romania who had made a splash at her school gymnastics competition. Nadia Comaneci was the star of the 1976 Olympic Games.
Along with American athletes, Neil Leifer did not go to the Moscow Games in 1980, but returned to cover Los Angeles in 1984 and to celebrate the new star of sprint, Carl Lewis. In 1992, he was there to do the official portrait of the Dream Team. Three icons wearing the same colors, something one would have never thought possible. Let’s not be afraid to say it: Neil Leifer has built an oeuvre, a catalog of wonders, timeless photographs that tell the story of sport and the heroes that made it.
By Jean-Denis Walter
Jean-Denis Walter is a journalist, former director of photography and editor-in-chief of L’Equipe Magazine. He now runs the Jean-Denis Walter Gallery.
More images by Neil Leifer and about the Jean-Denis Walter Gallery here.