Where Our Super Bowl Memories Come From: A Conversation With Neil Leifer

The most indelible Super Bowl images are history. The people that took those photos are mostly lost to it.
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This guy.

Exactly four photographers have shot all 48 (and counting) Super Bowls: John Biever, Walter Iooss, Mickey Palmer, and Tony Tomsic. It’s an incredible feat: Only three writers have managed to cover every one of the games. This fearsome foursome have watched the Super Bowl evolve from a Pete Rozelle experiment that didn’t come close to selling out the Los Angeles Coliseum in 1967 into America’s most-hyped secular holiday.

Neil Leifer, who knows a thing or three about cameras and lenses, has lovingly profiled the four shooters in an hour-long documentary that premiered on ESPN on Friday, January 23. Keepers of the Streak, made in conjunction with NFL Films, is a bouquet not only to his photographic brethren but to the legions of underappreciated sports photographers who toil to capture the indelible moment, and whose invisible work froze and immortalized the images that define the Super Bowl. Vince Lombardi carried aloft on Jerry Kramer’s shoulders; Joe Namath poolside predicting victory in Super Bowl III; John Stallworth hauling in Terry Bradshaw’s bomb; Santonio Holmes’ toe-dance in the end zone; David Tyree’s helmet reception—all of these indelible images have an author.

I spoke to Neil Leifer by phone about his latest film and about working at the Super Bowl. Our conversation took place before news broke that Sports Illustrated had laid off the remaining six staff photographers at the magazine.

You yourself have shot 13 Super Bowls: what is the most challenging part of taking pictures at the Super Bowl?

NEIL LEIFER: I’d say the most difficult part is just that it’s so crowded. The sidelines are almost wall-to-wall people, and the end zone is two-deep. Many photographers position themselves in the end zone now and stay there the whole game. Between the television cameras and the cables and the league officials and the two teams, it’s pretty packed.

In general, how difficult is football to shoot as compared to baseball or basketball or boxing?

It always varies with each photographer. For example, Walter Iooss was brilliant at baseball. He just loved the game. There’s a guy on the West Coast, Brad Mangin, who is a brilliant baseball photographer. I always found baseball the hardest sport to photograph because nothing happens most of the time. With a good pitcher’s duel, after you’ve shot the pitchers for two innings, nothing changes. And then all of a sudden—bang—there’s a smashing collision at home plate or a great double play. But, basically you’ve got to stay awake so that when these things happen you’re ready to get it. Whereas in football, there’s a potential picture on every single play. There’s a potential photograph in a boxing match on every single punch.  

I understand that hockey is very difficult to shoot. Is that true?

Hockey is very tough to cover for a bunch of reasons. One, it’s so fast. Two, at least when I was shooting, the stadiums were so packed that there was very little in the way of good photo positions. You can’t shoot if you don’t have a place to shoot from.

The four photographers in “Keepers of the Streak” lament that, with the game being moved inside to domes or being played at night (for the most part), they’ve lost something irreplaceable. What happened?

There’s a huge difference between the natural daylight in the outdoor stadiums and the artificial, flat lighting that you get inside the dome stadiums. When the games were played outdoors, the elements played a huge part. With grass fields, there was mud, there was dirt, there was blood that you could see on the uniforms. The Astroturf fields—the uniforms in the fourth quarter look exactly like they do in the first quarter.

The thing about the games today, they’re played in a sterile environment. That is a necessity because you’ve got television cameras 360 degrees around the field. They have to have equal lighting all around so that the cameras in the end zone are dealing with the same kind of lighting situation as the cameras along the sidelines and in the upper deck. Everything is lit pretty flat. When you had the daylight games, there were shadows and you had the option to backlight the players—all these things that make for dramatic additions to the photograph that don’t exist today. And, of course, the weather was a huge factor in those days. That was the one thing about last year’s Super Bowl [at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey]. Most of the photographers would have loved for it to have been snowing. They would’ve had better pictures.

Why do you think photographs—still images—resonate in our mind? Why do we remember the image of Vince Lombardi being lifted on Jerry Kramer’s shoulders rather than the film or video sequence of what was, after all, the same moment?

I’ve been asked this question a hundred times, and the only answer I can come up with is, because you can hold it and sit and look at it. But it’s true. How many people remember seeing, say, the video of the end of the USA-USSR Olympic hockey game in Lake Placid? They just don’t. Everyone remembers Al Michaels saying, “Do you believe in miracles?” and they all remember Heinz Kluetmeier’s great picture that was on the cover of Sports Illustrated—without a word of type on it, I might add. They remember that. As a kid I cut pictures out from magazines that I liked and stuck them on the wall. You can’t do that with video.

Do you have a favorite Super Bowl photograph that you took?

There are really two. Clearly, I love the picture of Lombardi being carried off the field [after Super Bowl II]. And I’d pick the coin toss at Super Bowl I, with the two Packers and the two Chiefs, and the referee. I think it sums up how the game has changed.

You dedicated the film to Howie Leifer, your brother. Why did you decide to do that?

My brother passed away two years ago, in January 2013. He worked for me. He handled my pictures. He was very involved as I was beginning to set up to make this film. The film was meant to be shot at Super Bowl XLVII and run before Super Bowl XLVIII.  My brother got a melanoma a little more than a year before, and he continued to work for me. Then he began slowing down, and he was able to work less and less. He took a turn for the worse in the fall, and it was clear that he was not going to survive for much longer.

I couldn’t focus on work. I went to ESPN and asked Connor Schell, who runs the ESPN documentary division, if I could put this off for a year. He couldn’t have been nicer and more considerate. Once they told me I could hold off for a year, I did that. My brother passed away in January, before Super Bowl XLVII. That’s why I dedicated the film to him. He was a huge sports fan. He would’ve loved the film.  He was so valuable to me, not only as a brother but as my partner.

I’m sorry for the loss of your brother, Neil. What’s interesting is that by holding off a year, you were able to show the process in which one of the four shooters that you profile in the film, Walter Iooss, got the cover of Sports Illustrated for Super Bowl XLVIII.

That was nothing but luck. I’d always intended to show the SI cover meeting because I was hoping that either John Biever or Walter would get the cover. The other two guys, Mickey Palmer and Tony Tomsic, were not shooting for SI. So, it made for a great story that the same guy who got the first Super Bowl cover for SI [featuring wide receiver Max McGee] got the latest one.

I knew that you and Walter Iooss have known each other for years, even before you were both with SI, but I didn’t realize that you and Mickey Palmer go back to when you were kids. How did you know each other?

I grew up on the Lower East Side in Manhattan. We lived in a low-income housing project there. Mickey lived in the same projects that I did, about 100 yards from the building I lived in. There was a camera club at the Henry Street Settlement, which was nearby, and we both were members. I was about 12 or 13 years old when I first starting taking pictures as a hobby. Mickey was in that club. Johnny Iacono was in that club. Manny Milan was in the club for a while, and so was a guy named Vinnie Nanfra. Vinnie and Mickey ended up at Look Magazine. Johnny, Manny and I all became staff photographers at Sports Illustrated.

Where will you be for this year’s Super Bowl?

At a friend’s house watching on television.  

You’ve been adamant about the lack of recognition that sports photographers have received—the fact that they are not represented in the baseball, football, basketball, or hockey halls of fame. Why do you think that sports photographers don’t get their due?

I think it’s a very unfortunate situation. Baseball is an easy one for me to talk about because I was never a great baseball photographer. I’m never going to be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. But there are so many great photographers who deserve a place in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Frank Hurley of the Daily News, who took the great image of Willie Mays [in the 1954 World Series]; Hy Peskin’s baseball pictures were phenomenal; Walter Iooss’ baseball pictures are priceless; Charlie Hoff of the Daily News; Wally McNamee in Washington, D.C. Truthfully, they are far more deserving than many of the writers. But who elects media to the Baseball Hall of Fame? Writers do. It’s a little bit of a buddy system. It’s an injustice, and it should be righted.

What is next for you, either film-wise or book-wise?

With Taschen, I’ve got two books that are in the works. Taschen bought the rights to five long magazine articles written by Norman Mailer in the 1960s and 1970s. So, the fourth in the series is Mailer’s fabulous piece on the Ali-Foreman fight in Zaire, with my photographs and Howard Bingham’s photographs. That’s coming out later this year. My boxing book with Taschen will be a year or so after that. Also, the University of Texas Press is going to publish my memoir. I don’t know when the book will be published. My hope and guess is that it will be out this Christmas.


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