George Kalinsky was 29 years old in 1965 when he tried following Muhammad Ali into a Miami gym.
The champ’s manager, Angelo Dundee, stopped him at the door. Kalinsky looked at the camera he was carrying and said, “I’m the photographer of Madison Square Garden.”
Dundee invited the “comedian” inside.
“It just came out of my mouth,” Kalinsky says today. He had so much fun photographing Ali that he took the film to John Corden, head of boxing at MSG. Corden admired the “chutzpah” of the Long Island native and offered him a job, Kalinsky says.
“In three months I was doing everything,” Kalinsky says. “I turned myself into the Garden photographer.”
Since then Kalinsky says he has covered more than 10,000 events, shooting not just for MSG, including Radio City Music Hall, but the Yankees, the Mets and the U.S. Open.
From Friday, more than 70 of his photos are on display at the New-York Historical Society. About two-thirds are sports-related, including a never-before-printed photo of the Mets celebrating their 1986 World Series win on the pitcher’s mound — at 2 a.m.
In addition to memorable action shots and championship moments, a lot of the work resulted from — or led to — close friendships.
“One of the wonderful things about being a photographer in the way I take pictures is that you get to meet a lot of people, and you get to know a lot of people really well,” Kalinsky says.
There are iconic photos of Ali, who became such a good friend that he sought Kalinsky‘s advice before his 1974 bout with George Foreman, leading to Kalinsky coining the rope-a-dope strategy.
Another friend is Yankees legend Mariano Rivera, who sat Kalinsky with his wife, Clara, at his final game, resulting in a “bird’s-eye view” photo of the Sandman walking onto the field amid a gaggle of photographers.
Frank Sinatra, who features in the exhibition, “became a great friend,” Kalinsky says, beginning when The Chairman came into his office and said, “I want you to teach me all you know about photography in five minutes.”
Having the run of the Garden gave Kalinsky the freedom to get shots no one else could, like a 1974 photo of Bob Dylan and The Band taken from behind the stage, capturing the crowd’s awed faces.
Kalinsky was there for the last U.S. concerts of Judy Garland and Janis Joplin, the only NYC appearance of Elvis Presley, shows by Elton John, John Lennon and so many more.
He even greeted Pope John Paul II upon his arrival at the Garden in 1979, establishing an immediate rapport that led to the indelible shot of the Pope with 6-year-old Geralyn Smith.
“Somehow I lucked into just being at the right place at the right time,” Kalinsky says.