FIT TO PRINT: As the Garden’s in-house shutterbug since 1966,
Kalinsky’s shot everyone from Elvis to the pope.
George Kalinsky has seen it all — through the lens of his camera.
As the in-house photographer for Madison Square Garden since 1966, the legendary picture snapper has captured images of sports stars and musicians including Elvis, Muhammad Ali, Sinatra, John Lennon and many a Ranger and Knick. He’s shot profiles of ex-presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton — and worked every Westminster Dog Show at the Garden since 1966.
Growing up in Hempstead, LI, Kalinsky could have become a jock himself — he was offered a contract with the Baltimore Orioles. But instead he chose to pursue creative endeavors, launching a career that’s seen his works exhibited at the Met, on billboards above Times Square and in coffee table books that have sold millions.
Now 66, Kalinsky lives comfortably with his wife on the Upper East Side. @Work sat down with the unflappable shutterbug, and he rewarded us with some tales from a storied career.
Q: Did you always have an interest in photography?
No. My interest was in drawing since about age 5. I wanted to be a political or sports cartoonist. I went to Pratt and studied industrial design while doing cartoons on the side.
Q: How did you become a photographer, then?
I went to Florida to interview to be the sports cartoonist at the Miami Herald, and they offered me the job. While I was there thinking it over, I was in Miami Beach and I see Muhammad Ali crossing the street. He meets Howard Cosell, and the two of them walk into a gym. So, I followed them, and I happened to have a camera over my shoulder. At the door, Ali’s trainer, Angelo Dundee, stops me and says, “You can’t come in unless you pay a dollar.” And this just came out of my mouth. I tell him, “I’m the photographer at Madison Square Garden.” And he says, “OK, comedian. Come on in.”
Q: You had an affiliation with the Garden way back then?
No. Not at all. I just thought, OK, boxing. Where do they have boxing in New York? I don’t know where I came up with that, really. But it worked, and I take an entire roll of Ali working out. I thought, this is really fun. I was drawn to it immediately. So, I went back to the Herald and showed them the photos. They asked if they could put one out over the wire, and the next day it was all over the world. I thought, this is what I want to do.
Q: So how did you end up actually working for the Garden?
I came back to New York and went to see John Condon, the p.r. director for boxing at the Garden. I just went in cold, showed him my one roll of film. Mainly to get advice. And he said, “If you have the chutzpah to come to me with one roll of film, I have the chutzpah to hire you.” So, in 1966, I started shooting boxing matches.
Q: After all these years, is this your dream job?
It is, because I feel like I capture the dreams of the sports superstars when they reach that moment of knockout or raising up a trophy. It’s the same when a musician reaches that moment where the fans are cheering them on for a fourth or fifth encore. Every performer strives for that moment. Joe Frazier beating Ali at the Garden. [Patrick] Ewing with his arms up in ’94. Sinatra singing “My Way” in the world’s most famous arena.
Q: Tell us your favorite Sinatra story.
The first time I met Sinatra was before the Ali-Frazier fight in ’71. Life magazine had hired him to photograph the fight, as a publicity thing. So he comes into my office a couple days before and says, “Hi, I’m Frank Sinatra. I’d like you to tell me all you know about photography in five minutes.” That turned out to be three hours of talking photography, going into the arena and looking over the ring. Afterward, he invites me to Patsy’s for lunch. It turned out to be a wonderful relationship I had with Frank over the years.
Q: That’s a classic story. Got one for Elvis?
Elvis did four shows here in 1972. I remember going into the dressing room before the show. He was sitting there in his white jumpsuit, and I was surprised at how shy he was offstage. I introduced myself, and in a very shy way he said, “What was the greatest moment you ever had in this building?” And I said, “Now.”
Q: It doesn’t get any bigger than Sinatra and Elvis.
Maybe the pope [John Paul II]. In 1979, I was waiting backstage and this limo pulls in. And by luck, I was standing right where the back door was. A cardinal gets out of the front and says, “Open the door.” So I open the door, and I see this white flash of light, which was his robe. It was a spiritual experience for me. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I put out my hand and helped him out. I said, “Welcome to Madison Square Garden, Your Holiness.”
At the service, when he entered the arena, he stopped near me and there was this beautiful 9-year-old girl. Her father was a city detective and had been killed just weeks before, though the pope had no way of knowing that. He stopped and picked the girl up, and I captured it. I just thought it was such a charismatic moment. It turned out it was one of his favorite pictures ever, and it was on his desk at the Vatican until he died.
Q: Do you have favorite spots for snapping photos?
If it’s a Knicks game, I’m usually under the basket. Mostly, I just anticipate where a moment may happen. Like with the pope, I was just in the right place at the right time. It’s just instinctive.
Q: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to follow in your footsteps?
To be successful in photography, especially with portrait work, you need to have a natural curiosity and combine that with sincerity, patience. If you have that, you’ll gain the trust from your subject. Trust is everything.