Wednesday, September 8, 2010

How Mad Men Rewrote Sports Photo History This Week

Lots of people told me the Mad Men episode that aired last Sunday was one of the best of the entire series. I missed it because I was traveling, but got around to watching it on DVR late last night. Yes, absolutely, it was one of the best, an emotional saga condensed into the events of one long day's journey into night....and morning. (Or should I say mourning?) The night in question was May 25, 1965, which boxing fans will recognize immediately as the date that  Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of a much-heralded rematch in Lewiston, Maine. The episode revolves around that fight and ends with  a wonderful payoff—one of those tasty pieces of set design that Mad Men is famous for: It shows the front page of the New York Daily News from the following day, next to a sketch of an ad campaign for Samsonite luggage as conceived by main character Don Draper after an excruciating binge of alcohol and suffering. Here it is (shot by me from my TV screen):

The visual  distills the episode's train-wreck of emotions into a kind of comprehensible equation about  knock-out blows and perseverance, loss and redemption. (See this fulsome Mad Men analysis.)  And I think it works so well, in part, because of the iconic photograph seen on the Daily News: The shot of of Ali standing over Liston, arm raised in a taunt, is at once distant and familiar, like the world of Mad Men itself.

In fact, the photograph seen on Mad Men is probably not the icon that many viewers thought it was. There were two great pictures of that indelible moment, one of which has become a cultural touchstone, the other more or less overlooked except by photo and sports aficionados. The difference between the two? A couple of feet, color film, and the relative elegance of magazine paper over newsprint.

Ali-Liston II ©Neil Leifer
The widely known image, above, was made by Neil Leifer, who at the time was a young photographer working for Sports Illustrated. Neil, who is a friend of mine, is one of the very great sports photographers: He has covered 15 Olympic Games, four soccer World Cups, 15 Kentucky Derbies, 12 Super Bowls, and countless World Series games. Boxing was his best sport, however—he has shot every important heavyweight title fight since Floyd Patterson beat Ingemar Johansson in 1960—and his photograph from the Ali-Liston rematch is, as he acknowledges, the one he will be best remembered for.

That night in Lewiston, Leifer was shooting with a Rolleiflex medium-format camera loaded with Ektachrome 64 film. (Not many magazines ran color images of recent events in those days—production was an expensive ordeal—and they gave SI a special appeal.)

An asa 64 film is fine-grained and yields a smooth, lustrous image, provided there is enough light for it to react to. The ring was lit by a powerful strobe with four separate heads directly above—Leifer describes it as essentially studio lighting—and he was able to produce a sports image with a lushness and detail that has rarely been equaled. It has been published countless times since in magazines and books and seen on museum walls around the world. (Last fall it was one of the centerpieces of an exhibition of work by Leifer and SI photographer Walter Iooss at the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.) Years after its original publication, SI would put it on the cover of a special issue devoted to the greatest sports photos of the 20th century. "It's a great picture of a key moment , filled with emotion and destined to remain etched in the minds of its viewers," wrote Steve Fine, the magazine's  director of photography.

Today, Leifer frankly admits that he can't remember much about shooting the picture. The moment of Ali's taunt—the moment of perfect composition—came and went very quickly. (Watch a film of the fight to see just how quickly.) "The knockout took place exactly where I wanted it to," he wrote in his book The Best of Leifer, "and my only thought was, 'Stay right there, Sonny! Please, don't get up.'"

Of course it's about luck—being at the right place at the right time. One of the striking figures in Leifer's shot is a balding man whose head can be seen between Ali's legs: That is Herbie Scharfman, the only other photographer ringside shooting for Sports Illustrated. That night in Maine, Scharfman drew a bad card from a cold deck. Leifer notes that Scharfman chose to sit where he did—next to a judge—because he felt he had more room to maneuver there. Leifer got the leftover seat on the other side of the ring. The outcome is apparent on Scharfman's face: a look of bewilderment and defeat that came with the knowledge that he simply wasn't going to get a shot of one of the decade's great sports moments because all he could see was Ali's backside.

Sitting two seats away from Leifer on the lucky side of the ring was a photographer from the Associated Press, John Rooney. Like Leifer, he was poised to snap as Ali raised his arm and scowled at Liston. And he got it, at the same moment. In his picture, Herbie Scharfman can be seen just to the left of Ali's right knee.

Ali-Liston II by John Rooney for Associated Press
 Rooney was shooting for a wire service, which meant that his pictures from the fight were destined for newspapers the next day. Therefore,  Rooney was shooting in black and white. (This was long, long before newspapers began running color photos.) Rooney, who passed away years after the fight, was shooting with a 35mm SLR, undoubtedly loaded with Kodak TRI-X black-and-white film. His picture is far grainier than the one Leifer got with the Ektachrome 64.

After the fight Rooney's picture was rushed out on the wires. The next day, the image was seen by people all over the world, including Don Draper.

Besides having a hangover, Draper lost a hundred bucks on Liston
Leifer, working for a weekly magazine, stuck his film in his pocket and flew it back to New York the morning after the fight. "I remember being at an airport and seeing Rooney's picture in one of the Maine newspapers, or maybe it was the Boston Globe," Leifer says. "I hadn't even seen my own photos of the fight yet,  so when I saw Rooney's I was pretty happy: I knew at least I was sitting on the right side of the ring."

Rooney's picture went on to win a 1965 World Press Photo prize for best sports picture of the year. But it never achieved the level of journalistic immortality that Leifer's did. Why? The best explanation is simply that Leifer's picture was so remarkably beautiful. The Ektachrome 64 film was an exquisite material. Leifer's choice of camera format was also important, I think. The Rollei's square image frames Ali's powerful stance and Liston's languid weakness; the energy of the scene is contained within those four strong walls and builds upon itself. 

Then there is the timing: Rooney's picture was part of the grind of daily news, a captivating image that was looked at and then discarded. (Think of all those bird cages lined with that wonderful picture!). Leifer's picture appeared days later, after the fight (and the mysterious punch that felled Liston) had become legend. Its publication in a magazine that celebrated photography was an event.

What, one wonders, would have happened if Rooney had been shooting color? Leifer has certainly wondered. In fact, he has always wondered whether Rooney did shoot some color at the fight. As he recalls, Rooney was working with a contraption that held two 35mm SLRs, one on top of the other. Leifer has always wondered if one camera was loaded with TRI-X and the other with color film. But, says Leifer,  no color photo of the fight by Rooney has ever turned up.

You can see Rooney holding his camera contraption in the picture below, taken by a photographer on the unlucky side of the ring: He's there, next to Ali's right knee, holding a big metal frame. Next to Rooney is another photographer with his elbows resting on the ring itself, shooting from below the bottom rope. Next to that man is another photographer standing, holding a Rollei and shooting between the ropes. That is Leifer.

Rooney next to Ali's knee; Leifer standing with Rollei
 Liefer has been looking at this picture for years and wondering about it. There appears to be only one 35mm camera inside the metal frame that Rooney holds. "But why, if he was shooting with only one camera, would he have been doing it like that?" asks Leifer. "It would have been much less cumbersome to just hold a camera normally, without that frame."

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