Neil Leifer's new book, Sports Stars (Doubleday/Dolphin, $35), is supposed to be a showcase for the best of the memorable sports pictures he has taken over a 27-year career, but the pictures are given a mighty rough time of it. Writers and photographers often disagree about the amount of space and attention each other's work deserves, but this time—of all times!—the photography has been ridiculously mishandled. The book's captions are either missing, inadequate or downright misleading; the "accompanying text" has ambitions of its own and rarely discusses the photographs; the arrangement has neither rhyme nor reason nor, even, chronology. Yet none of this is as puzzling or disconcerting as the presence of a five-page essay on Peter Ueberroth's role in the Los Angeles Olympics, by Peter Bonventre, that deifies Ueberroth but never mentions Leifer or his work at all. It appears to have come off the press at the same time as the book and been bound into it by mistake.
Perhaps all this foolishness is deliberate, intended to show by contrast what a superb photographer Leifer really is. If that's the plan, it works. The pictures triumph over all. Starting with the photograph of Muhammad Ali on the dust jacket—the best portrait of an athlete ever made—this collection is a priceless treasure for any sports fan. There is intelligence, ingenuity and the true empathy of an aficionado behind each shot, with a minimum of fancy effects. Here are views of Bear Bryant, Mary Lou Retton, Jack Nicklaus, Casey Stengel, Julius Erving and dozens of others that will tell people 100 years from now who they were, what they did and why a great photographer felt compelled to put himself and his skills at their service. It's an unlucky athlete, indeed, who missed being caught by Leifer's lens. On the last page is a picture of Fidel Castro lighting Leifer's cigar. The occasion was a visit by Leifer to Cuba to photograph Olympic boxer Teofilo Stevenson. After studying these pages, you'll want to join in Castro's tribute. Just skip the other stuff.