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Joel Epstein Headshot

Sport at the Annenberg Space for Photography: It's Not Manila But It's a Thrilla

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To borrow liberally from the wisdom of Yogi Berra, that giant of American letters, "It isn't over till you've visited the new show at the Annenberg Space for Photography." Sport: Iooss & Leifer which features the works of Neil Leifer and Walter Iooss, two of the world's greatest sports and celebrity photographers (470 Sports Illustrated covers and counting between them) is so good because it tells the story of the country's giants of sports over what has to have been one of the most interesting half centuries the world has ever known. Simply put, this show is outstanding and is a must see for anyone coming to Los Angeles or for the gazillion locals who already call it home.

Though I only became aware of, and then involved with the show a couple of months ago when I joined the Annenberg Foundation as an in house consultant, it has been an unbelievable experience getting a behind-the-scenes look at the work of these two Goliaths of the trade. Since my obsession with sports pretty much ended when the Jets and Giants moved to New Jersey and its odorless and colorless 80,000 seat stadium euphemistically called the Meadowlands, and the early '70s Knicks' dream team of Frazier, Reed, Bradley, DeBusschere, Monroe and Jackson took the bench, I'm hardly the show's demographic. It's really more the go to destination of the Annenberg Space for Photography's Century City neighbor Creative Artists Agency and the thousands of pinstriped lawyers, hedge fund traders, and real estate developers who live their 8-6 weekday lives in Century City (Alas the business district's sidewalks are still basically rolled up after dark when the salary-men and women head home to the West Side, San Fernando Valley, South Bay, and beyond). Indeed working here it has become my dream that CAA's testosterone- and Red Bull-fuelled sports and celebrity agents spend their Christmas bonuses generously supporting the arts and the mission of the nonprofit Annenberg Space for Photography by purchasing Leifer and Iooss' limited edition prints of the 20th and 21st Centuries' Zeuses and Athenas. Running the state-of- the-art photography space doesn't come cheap and its patron, the Annenberg Foundation, is committed to keeping access to the Space admission-free!

But then again maybe the show really is for me as well, and for just about everyone born after 1920. My favorites in this beautifully displayed cross over sports/celebrity/art photography exhibit are the iconic images of Muhammad Ali, the GOAT or "Greatest of All Time" towering over Sonny Liston who he's just knocked to the mat only minutes into round one in Lewiston in 1965, Bear Bryant chalk in hand going over some plays, a gap-toothed, hooded Terry Bradshaw on the sidelines, Joe Namath talking on the phone in the mud and rain at Shea, and another of Broadway Joe poolside, soaking up the fame amid a gaggle of adoring fans. There are literally dozens of other images of all the greats from Berra and Koufax and Mays to Jordan, Joyner-Kersee, Montana and Phelps. The reason the show's appeal is so universal is because it tells the story of America these past fifty years through the prism of athleticism, celebrity, and popular culture. Though the images speak for themselves, for me the must experience for those fortunate enough to visit the exhibit which opened Saturday and runs through March is the 23 minute film shown in the Annenberg Space for Photography's central court. In it, Leifer and Iooss describe their craft and the enviable lives they have lived documenting the achievements of the world's greatest athletes. The genius of these talented artists is their ability to capture and often shape for the public the defining images of sports and cultural history in split second snapshots that would have otherwise been lost to posterity. The exhibit and film are at their best when capturing the way American attitudes about race were changed by the integration of baseball, football, and the other sports by the wave of noble athletic greats captured and defined by these gifted photographers.

Like the '69 Miracle Mets who taught us that "Ya gotta believe" Sport: Iooss & Leifer is so powerful and uplifting that it is just the antidote we are all craving at this crazy time when palpable hate and contempt are the order of the day in Congress, on Fox News, in Sarah Palin's so-called memoir and in Rush's daily rant. It succeeds because it gives us true heroes who knew the meaning of sport and knew that competition belongs on the field, on the court, on the track and in the pool. Sport: Iooss & Leifer, which tells a touchstone story about America, is indeed the photographers' gift to the country and there are few better stories around than the tale these artists' photographs tell. With a new president in office seeking to project a different United States to the world, it is this optimistic, universal story of exceptional ability and achievement that should become the country's Gift of State as well to those with whom we interact around the globe.