“I’m extremely proud of my sports work. But I’ve also covered everything from Charles Manson to the Pope.”
The ESPN Films documentary “Keepers of the Streak” is as much about evolution and dedication as it is about football and photography.
Directed by renowned sports photographer Neil Leifer, the film chronicles the decades-long journey of John Biever, Walter Iooss, Mickey Palmer and Tony Tomsic, four men who have shot football’s biggest game for almost 50 years, and counting.
Leifer’s own photography career also spans decades, most famously, for his work in Sports Illustrated magazine. His many accomplishments include photographing countless World Series games, the first 12 Super Bowls and every important heavyweight title fight since Ingemar Johansson beat Floyd Patterson in 1959. Like the lives he chronicles in his film, Leifer, too, is a living legend in the photography world.
“Keepers of the Streak” captivated award-winning Getty Images sports photographer Elsa Garrison, who also has covered many Super Bowls throughout her career. She spoke with Leifer about his craft, his life and what it’s like now being a filmmaker.
As a still photographer, how easy or difficult was it to transition into being a filmmaker?
Not at all, because I got the bug about 25-30 years ago. I was a staff photographer for Sports Illustrated and Time Magazine, but I was able to supplement my income by doing the “special stills” on many feature films. The process fascinated me.
I’ve now been doing films for quite a while. I’ve done a bunch of short films, I did two documentaries for HBO. I enjoy doing whatever projects come up that are fun and interesting. And this was one of them. This was a no-brainer for me – I mean I’ve known these guys all these years and I marveled at how they can keep going and keep doing this. It was a natural and easy subject to pitch ESPN.
For the first few Super Bowls, you had much better access than any of us have now. What Super Bowl did you notice that the access to the game, the players, began to shift?
I don’t remember but it was pretty early on. It was all across sports. It just changed. Suddenly lawyers, publicists and agents were involved.
But there was a time years ago when you could go out to a Jets practice and walk over to guys like Joe Namath after practice and ask him for five minutes to do a portrait. If they were in a good mood, they’d say yes.
The best example of all was Muhammad Ali. You went to the 5th Street gym and when training was over you walked over and shook hands with Ali and told him you wanted 10 minutes and 90% of the time, you got it. That just doesn’t exist anymore. Today, I like to tell people, you have a better chance of having lunch tomorrow with the President than you do of getting a guy like LeBron James in the studio.
After shooting the first 12 Super Bowls, what made you stop your “streak” and go do something else?
At that point we didn’t even think of it as a streak. I always had interest in covering subjects other than sport. I wanted to cover the White House. I wanted to do military stories. But I was finding that no one thought of me for anything other than sports pictures.
You shoot sport well and for a long time and suddenly people think you can’t do anything else. That changed when Ray Cave, who had been executive editor at Sports Illustrated before becoming managing editor at Time Magazine, offered me the chance to move to Time. It may have been the same parent company, but the move opened up another world, giving me the opportunity to explore other things.
Time Magazine also did sports stories, so I was still able to cover that world. I’m extremely proud of my sports work. But I’ve also covered everything from Charles Manson to the Pope. I spent weeks doing an essay on the animals of Africa, flew with Top Gun and did a year covering prisons for Time. So I left [Sports Illustrated] so I could do other things, and you know, it was a wonderful opportunity for me.
Do you feel that shooting other things outside of sports helped you become a better sports photographer?
I think it’s the other way. Mark Kauffman – one of the greatest Life Magazine photographers ever – told me once that the best training for photojournalism in general, is shooting sports. You arrive at the stadium without a clue as to what’s going to happen on that day. Maybe it’s a perfect game in the World Series? Maybe it’s the Immaculate Reception? Or the Giants’ David Tyree catching the ball with his helmet in Super Bowl XLII. Whatever the case – you know that this could be the day that you take a photograph that becomes iconic. And you don’t get a second chance. You can’t bracket your exposure on the winning touchdown, you know, which you can do in a studio and do in other assignments.
And Mark was right. I think having shot sports for so many years made me much better.
There were skills that I learned in sports photography that were very effective when I moved over to Time Magazine. One example is the experience I got with long lenses. Anybody shooting sports has to be very capable with long lenses. I shot a lot of things with 400 and 600mm lenses at Time Magazine – lenses that my competition weren’t used to using. I did a cover of President Carter at the Democratic Convention with a 600mm lens from the floor. Most guys didn’t work with that kind of equipment at the time. So, I mean, the skills I learned in sports, I was able to use over and over again.
Of all your iconic Super Bowl pictures, can you choose a favorite?
Well, without question, my favorite Super Bowl picture would be the one of Vince Lombardi from Super Bowl II. I mean, I wanted that shot before the game even started. As I said in the film, in the old days the winning coach would get carried off the field.
That’s the picture I knew I wanted – Lombardi on his players’ shoulders when they won the game. I started making my move with 15 seconds to go so that when the clock ran out, I was right in front of him. And nobody was going to move me at that point. The whole time you’re hoping to get it – and I got it. I was just in the perfect place at the perfect time. And that was one of the things I was good at. But once you’re there, you have to deliver the goods and I made my best Super Bowl picture ever. So that’s my favorite.View the entire Neil Leifer Collection on Getty Images