Neil Leifer’s Only Perfect Photo

Snapped Nov. 14, 1966.

During a special episode of Richard Deitsch’s Sports Illustrated Media podcast, famed photographer Neil Leifer explains why there is but a single photo taken during the course of his long and illustrious career for which there was never any second-guessing. It’s the famous one shot from an overhead vantage point at the Houston Astrodome Nov. 14, 1966.

Here’s Leifer, from the conversation:

“I consider my Cleveland WilliamsAli picture to be the best picture I’ve taken of anything. Period. And the reason is very simple.”

“I always try, ‘How do you improve? How do you get a little better?’ No matter how well you think you’ve done. And I’ve had plenty of pictures where I just spent a bit of time congratulating myself on what a genius I was. And then a week later, you see little things that you could do a little differently with that same picture. And a year later I can find ten little things, whether it’s I would have lit it a little differently, I would have been a little closer, I would have been a little wider. Whatever it is, you can always improve something.”

“That is the only picture – forget about sports; you know, I spent 12 years at Time magazine shooting everything from the Pope to Charles Manson – that is the only picture that I’ve taken that I wouldn’t change a single thing.”

Unusually, a print of the Williams photo hangs in the middle of Leifer’s living room. Otherwise, the photographer says he prefers in those surroundings to celebrate the work of colleagues. Leifer also reveals during the podcast that he had photographed the Astrodome during the construction phase and was as a result familiar with the possibilities offered by the facility’s unusually high but still accessible overhead lighting rig.

Leifer says if Ali had lost to Williams, it would have been that week’s Sports Illustrated cover. But like his famous Sonny Liston shot, the Williams photo did not make the cover. Here’s the cover SI ran immediately before the Monday night Ali-Williams heavyweight bout. And here’s the one the publication went with right after.

Previously on FishbowlNY:
A Miami Beach Portrait of Muhammad Ali