There's the memorable photograph you see in the magazine, the one that freezes the fleeting instant when everything—skill and subject, light and luck—came into perfect alignment as the photographer clicked the shutter. And then there are those thousands of frames that most of us never see. Every great photo, as these contact sheets from the files of longtime SI photographer Neil Leifer show, has at least one sibling—maybe it's an older one taken milliseconds earlier or one born an inning later. The following pages have seven of Leifer's best photos, along with their less-heralded brothers and sisters. In each case only one of them is the picture, but the rest tell the story behind the shot that takes our breath away.
Ain't I Pretty?
While training at the Fifth Street Gym in Miami for his comeback bout against Jerry Quarry, Muhammad Ali took short breaks to entertain the crowd (top) or to get advice from his handlers. "Fighters usually go to the mirror to check their muscle tone," Leifer says of this shot. "But with AN you always had the feeling he was admiring himself."
OCT. 13, 1960
It Ain't Over
Using a $450 camera he hadn't yet paid for, a 17-year-old Leifer captured Roger Maris (frames 13-15), Mickey Mantle (16, 17) and Yogi Berra (frame 19) in the sixth inning of Game 7 of the Pirates-Yankees World Series. Berra hit a three-run homer to give the Yankees a lead, but the Pirates won it on Bill Mazeroski's famous ninth-inning shot. All was not lost for Leifer, though. SI bought two other photos he shot in that series, and cut him a check...for $450.
DEC. 31, 1961
Shoot to Daylight
A great photo is usually a combination of planning and luck. After the Green Bay Packers won their first NFL title under Vince Lombardi, Leifer hustled to get in position to shoot Lombardi as he was carried off the field. In his first shot (frame 14) Leifer was in the perfect spot, but the coach was looking away. Leifer's luck turned worse when a hooded photographer stepped in front of him for the next two frames. Then, suddenly, everything opened up. "Miraculously, either the photographer moved or I may have elbowed him out of the way," Leifer says only half-jokingly. "And as the players came closer to me, bingo, there it was."
DEC. 12, 1964
"There's never been an easier football player to photograph," Leifer says of Jim Brown, "because he carried the ball for the Browns on every other play and because of that little stutter step of his at the line as he read his blocking and picked his hole [frame 29]. That little moment of hesitation gave me an extra second to focus my lens on him before he made his move." And it didn't hurt that Brown was built like a Greek god and ran with an awe-inspiring combination of power and grace. Brown picked up 99 yards on 20 carries in the Browns' 52-20 Saturday afternoon victory over Y.A. Tittle's New York Giants in Yankee Stadium.
APRIL 10, 1961
President Kennedy (front row, center) and Vice President Johnson (with glasses, on JFK's right) leaned to the left on Opening Day in D.C.—not for politics, but because a foul ball was hit toward the Presidential box. "All I wanted that day was a good picture of the President," Leifer recalls, "but he wasn't cooperating. Johnson was busy-he ate two or three hot dogs, had a couple of beers, but Kennedy really didn't do anything that would make a good picture until that foul ball."
AUGUST 22, 1965
Leifer was at this game just to get some color shots of Dodgers ace Sandy Koufax (number 32) and Giants pitcher Juan Marichal. But he also had a black and white camera handy, he recalls, "in case something happened." Something did: Marichal attacked Dodgers catcher Johnny Roseboro with his bat. "It happened so fast," Leifer recalls. "I had no idea if I got it." He did...with the penultimate frame on his roll.
JUNE 19, 1966
An Army of One
Whenever photographers cover golf, Leifer says, "they live in constant fear that if they click too soon, some PGA official will pull their credential." To avoid getting tossed during the final round of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, Leifer decided to shoot Arnold Palmer from a distance whenever he could—sometimes as much as 200 feet away—which meant he had to use a long lens. That 400-mm lens had an additional benefit: It pulled the photo's background closer to its foreground, and, in this case, made Arnie's Army appear to be dramatically closer to Palmer.