" 'I know how to fly the plane,' he says, and crash. Three times, and he broke three of my propellers."
"Two propellers," Neil Leifer corrected John Iacono. "But I did lay low for a while."
Photographers Leifer and Iacono, who shot the Yankees together for this week's issue (and vice versa—Ron Blomberg took the picture above), were explaining how they had met some 20 years ago. "We lived about a block apart on the Lower East Side here in New York," Neil says, "but we didn't really know each other until John let me fly his airplane, one of those models on a wire. I broke it, and I thought he was going to kill me. He was always the big guy in the neighborhood, and when they said Johnny was looking for me, I hid out until it dawned on me that Johnny Iacono wouldn't really want to beat me up. That was when we were 10 and 11. He's been my best friend since. I honestly don't think we've ever had an argument."
A few years after the airplane affair the two of them started going to the Lower East Side's Henry Street Settlement House, where they learned photography from an impressive teacher, Nellie Peissachowitz. "She did a good job," Iacono says. "At one time, out of the kids she taught, four were working as magazine staff photographers." Still together at Seward Park High, Leifer was picture editor of the school paper and Iacono his chief photographer. ("I would assign myself to all the sports and Johnny to the ballet and glee club," Leifer admits cheerfully.) Finally, they both ended up at Time Inc., though they arrived by different routes. George Karas, chief of the LIFE photo lab, had helped the Settlement House photo workshop, donating printing paper and spare equipment, and one day he invited the kids to tour his lab. "I can still remember the look on his face when he saw all us guys in black leather jackets," Iacono recalls. "All that was missing was Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall." Soon after, however, Karas hired Iacono, and in time John's pictures were turning up at SI. And Leifer? He was showing his pictures to the editors as he delivered their sandwiches from the nearby Stage Delicatessen.
July 1, 1973
"Since then Neil has become sort of an international photographer," says John's wife Nancy. "He's been to places like Russia and Japan and Monaco. Johnny goes to places like Yazoo City, Miss. and Oshkosh, Wis." (When Neil married his wife Renae, John flew in from Seattle to be his best man: Neil, in turn, was best man when John married Nancy.)
The progress of the pair over the years has not been exactly parallel, what with Iacono taking what Leifer calls the long way round, via the LIFE lab, while he himself was making his direct assault from the Stage Delicatessen, but there have been some striking similarities. Consider their activities at the three Patterson-Johansson heavyweight title fights.
"We saw the first one from $5 grandstand seats," Iacono says. "And the second with roving photo passes," Leifer adds. The third fight took place in Miami and the Settlement House boys photographed it from ringside.