The image for which sports photographer Neil Leifer is most famous--the shot pictured below of Muhammad Ali roaring over a prone Sonny Liston during their 1965 heavyweight championship fight, perhaps the greatest sports photograph in history--is seen as a glorious triumph, for Ali and for Leifer. To me, though, it's an image more about the sting, the pain of defeat--in sports and in life--than it is a celebration of triumph.
Leifer never pretended as though it was his best or even his favorite photograph, because he knew there was a strong element of luck in his getting that shot of Ali. He was one of two Sports Illustrated photographers in Maine for the fight; standard procedure was to station the shooters on either side of the ring. And if you look closely at the photograph--perhaps it's too small on the page, but you're going to see it on display at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery when you go, which you will do--you'll see a hidden tribute to missed opportunities, to failure, if you will. Because between Ali's legs, holding a camera up in vain, is the other SI photographer there that evening. The one who was very good but who is not famous.
To be fair, Leifer is famous for more than just his most famous photograph--with good reason. Leifer has captured images in five different decades, chronicling some of the most memorable moments not only in sports history, but in ours. Also at the exhibit are shots of the third Ali vs. Joe Frazier battle (the "Thrilla in Manilla"), Wilt Chamberlain posterizing Bill Russell, an astounding wide shot of Secretariat bounding past the Kentucky Derby gallery in 1973, as well as shots of Nolan Ryan, Don Meredith, Tom Landry and Roger Staubach. If you've never seen these images, or didn't witness the events he brings to still life, you'll find the exhibit well worth your time. If you're a sports fan looking to jog your memory, you'll no doubt be moved.
Neil Leifer: The Best of Neil Leifer runs until February 8 at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery, 3115 Routh St., 214-969-1852. The ESPN documentary video of Neil Leifer's career will be shown concurrently at the gallery. His new book, The Best of Leifer, is available in the gallery for $75.
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