It remains the most famous sports action photograph of the 20th century: Muhammad Ali looms over Sonny Liston, whose arms are splayed, before Ali retains the heavyweight championship in 1965.
Longtime Sports Illustrated photographer Neil Leifer snapped the picture, but it’s not his favorite. That would be the aerial view of Ali’s knockout over Cleveland Williams, taken the next year with a camera that Leifer rigged 80 feet above the ring at the Houston Astrodome. “There were no advertisements for beer or deodorant [on the canvas] back then,” he says, “so it was this perfectly symmetrical image on a clean surface. You could never get that shot today.”
Those photos, along with 78 others by Leifer and Walter Iooss, his compatriot and competitor, are on display at the Annenberg Space for Photography, the first time that the work of these titans will be the subject of a two-man show.
Sports photography is a hybrid that involves elements of deadline journalism, celebrity portraiture, motion studies of the human body, fashion and design.
Yet museums and galleries routinely snub sports-themed pictures, even though Eadweard Muybridge, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Leni Riefenstahl, Larry Fink and Annie Leibovitz (among others) have worked on sports and athletes.
The gallery’s film director, Steve Kochones, has produced an ambitious array of digital features to supplement the images. “The Sports Illustrated guys were a new breed on the field,” Kochones says. “They captured events in ways that hadn’t been done before.”
Iooss and Leifer credit their predecessors at the magazine -- Hy Peskin, Mark Kaufman, John Zimmerman, Marvin Newman -- with inspiring their stylings. Iooss had his first SI cover at age 20; Leifer, who took the memorable “Greatest Game” photo at Yankee Stadium on his 16th birthday in 1958, notched 170 covers.
“They started their careers almost as children,” says staff writer Frank Deford, “and right away they were shooting covers. There’s never been anything like it. They must have driven the other photographers crazy.”
Indeed, their soulful portraits and dazzling action shots helped define the look of the magazine as it transitioned from black-and-white to color, from film to digital, from darkrooms to downloads. According to Steve Fine, Sports Illustrated’s director of photography, Leifer is “relentless” in the pursuit of his craft. “Neil’s quintessential photos -- Ali over Liston, Joe Namath in the mud -- offer a wide-angle sense of place that allows the reader to feel what it was like to be there.”
Iooss, Fine says, “is a magnet for the ball. The action comes to him, and he never misses. No one shoots like him. He’s an artist who is quite possibly the greatest sports photographer ever.”
The friendly rivals pushed each other. Leifer, says Iooss, “always had concepts in his head when he went to events. He was much more technical, with his use of lighting and remote cameras. Even as a young guy, he had a sense of taking a big picture.”
Iooss, says Leifer, “has God-given, natural talent. He does things effortlessly. He shows up while the national anthem is being played, with a beat-up camera, and still gets the perfect shot with an amazing background.”
Lately, Leifer has published several mammoth-sized monographs with L.A.-based Taschen. He rarely takes still photographs; instead, he’s turned his eye toward directing short action films. His latest is “The Perfect Game.”
Although Iooss doesn’t cover many events today, he continues to shoot for SI and Golf Digest. He has published 14 books and is preparing another about his swimsuit photography.
His favorite photo in the exhibit? A black-and-white scene of kids playing stickball in the streets of Havana. “It’s the decisive moment that [Henri] Cartier-Bresson talked about,” he says. “Every eye is on the ball that the chubby kid is swinging at. Nothing else exists except the moment.”