Leifer, Neil (with Diane K. Shah). Relentless: The Stories Behind the Photographs. Focus on American History Series. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2016. pp400 + 276 photos. $45.
Reviewed by Andrew R.M. Smith
Make no mistake—Neil Leifer entered the sports world through its stomach. His job as a delivery boy for the Stage Deli, erstwhile competitor to its Seventh Avenue neighbor the Carnegie Deli, was integral to his career as one of the most well-known and respected sports photographers in the nation.
Through sandwich bags Leifer developed relationships with not only the athletes he wanted to photograph—regulars like Mickey Mantle—but also the Midtown-based magazines where he wanted to publish those pictures. Without the pastrami from the Stage, some of the most iconic moments in sport history would not have been captured on film.
Revelations like this permeate Relentless. It is by no means Leifer’s first book, but it is his most introspective—and probably his most humorous.
He opens up about those sandwich days and draws a favorable comparison to his alternatives: being the only white, Jewish shoe-shiner hanging out by City Hall or the awkward tween boy delivering—and occasionally fitting—women for undergarments from the shop where his mother worked. However, avoiding the doormen, assistants, and others who wished to buy him off with a nominal tip, and deliver the goods straight to the heavy-hitters who might slip him a fiver, still required a great deal of persistence and creativity. Those traits served him well in a brief stint as a ticket scalper, but ultimately Leifer had higher aspirations. He just needed a good camera.
Photography was somewhere between afterthought and compromise for a teen-aged Leifer. His membership in the Henry Street Settlement House Camera Club was an attempt to pass the time when he was unable to play basketball—the true reason for his association with the House anyway. The process of not only snapping a picture, but developing the fruits of your attention to lighting, background, aperture and shutter speed overwhelmed him. Soon he was using his tip money from the Stage to buy essentials like film while the guile he employed to wrest those tips from others helped him navigate the “sharp elbows business” of sports photography (p. xiii).
Although he rarely got to stay, Leifer often appeared at big games in New York. Without press credentials, he was regularly chased out of Madison Square Garden; to gain access into Yankee Stadium, he wheeled disabled veterans (without their invitation) through the tunnels. He was nothing short of relentless. So relentless, in fact, that he convinced his father—a working-class resident of the lower east side—to buy him a camera…on credit. That alone is a testament to his tenacity. The fact that he sold a couple of photos he took with that new camera for enough to pay it off in full proved his talent.
Leifer embarked on a career in photo journalism that traced the arc of Henry Luce’s empire through the decline of print media. He shot everywhere from the 5th Street Gym to the Oval Office. And Relentless includes more than just the photos, many of which are already etched into the minds of sports fans and researchers alike. Its signal contribution is Leifer’s commentary. Sometimes it takes the form of short, humorous anecdotes about corralling giraffes for a shoot in Kenya or furiously trying to cut out the strip of film that contained O.J. Simpson’s indiscreet self-photos. On other pages, Leifer adds the humanizing back story of moments we only saw after the pictures were developed, like the 1961 St. Joe’s basketball team before the point-shaving charges went public. And some of the best additions here are ones not by but of Leifer—meticulously setting up his equipment before a shoot or running full-steam out of a football huddle before the camera goes off. The strength of his photography has always been its inherent narrative quality but the addition of behind-the-camera annotation makes it nearly impossible to put down the book.
There is an underlying narrative, it feels, to everything Leifer does including the informally informative Relentless. It opens with a photo of Leifer taken by famed sports photograph Walter Iooss, Sr. Later, Leifer retells the story of Iooss introducing his son, Walter Jr., and asking the always-hovering hopeful to give his kid a few tips. As the pictures and anecdotes flow on, more or less chronologically, Iooss, Jr. becomes a prominent character. The two developed a strong friendship and healthy competition often doing the same work at the same events for the same editors—but very differently. There is a clear and familiar storyline for sports fans: the sports photography legacy with God-given talent for snapping the right shot at the right time, juxtaposed with the “grinder” from the lower east side who is trying to out-work, out-think, and out-hustle everybody else in the game.
By the end, readers will probably leave with the feeling that very little of what Leifer shot happened by accident. Some good fortune, like being in the end zone where an overtime touchdown is scored or the side of the ring with a full-frontal view of the knockout, is apparent. But when Leifer pulls back the curtain on the business of photo journalism it becomes clear that planning, strategy, and creativity were often crucial just to getting the assignment—let alone the shot. Many of the ones that are most ubiquitous now were the result of more than luck or timing, but instead the work performed by a solitary Leifer, planting cameras in the infield or fastening them to the rafters hours before the action began.
Even as he moved on to the broader world of photo journalism for various outlets of the Time Inc. brand, and even other magazines, the techniques and themes of sports infuse his work. The “bird’s eye” view of Charles Manson in Vacaville prison is reminiscent of Ali and Cleveland Williams in the Houston Astrodome; his “plant’s eye” view of a huddle in Reagan’s Oval Office like so many from the college and professional teams Leifer covered. As the subjects of the photos and stories move on from games and athletes it further demonstrates how tightly woven sport had become in the fabric of American society through the second half of the twentieth century.
That Relentless hits the shelf in the same year the sports world lost two of its icons and Leifer’s favorite subjects—Muhammad Ali and Arnold Palmer—augments the nostalgia emanating from these pages. And that is why it will certainly appear on more coffee tables than course reading lists. Academics, however, should not ignore its pedagogical value. Particularly in courses more focused on the craft than the past, such as sports journalism or sportswriting, Leifer’s photos and first-hand accounts might help to elucidate the process and significance of crafting a narrative with more images than prose; lessons that could be valuable in either print or digital manifestations today. At the very least Relentless may engender conversations with students about the value of a picture or, as Leifer facetiously tries to determine, just how many words it might be worth. In a social media world that imposes character limits, the power of the visual grows more important and perhaps no one in our sporting history has harnessed it so capably—and relentlessly—as Neil Leifer.
Andrew R.M. Smith is Assistant Professor of Sport Management and History at Nichols College, where he is fortunate to teach courses on sport history, sportswriting, and sport broadcasting as part of his “job.” Despite a deep appreciation for other people’s sport photography he actually laments the bygone era of disposal Kodaks and can’t work the camera his iPhone 4. Correspondence to firstname.lastname@example.org.