George Kalinsky has photographed icons in one of the world’s most beloved entertainment venues for nearly 55 years.
A former resident of Port Washington and Sands Point, Kalinsky, 85, began serving as Madison Square Garden’s resident photographer in 1966, and still holds the position. Earlier this week, Kalinsky was announced as one of three recipients of this year’s Curt Gowdy Media Award by the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in Massachusetts for his decades of work photographing the New York Knicks.
While Hempstead native and Hempstead High School graduate Kalinsky grew up taking family photos, his first love was sketching and drawing. He attended the Pratt Institute in Manhattan to study design and first picked up photography in earnest as a student there.
Kalinsky worked as a sports cartoonist early in his career, including for Newsday and the Long Island Press, but he says luck intervened in 1965, when he had a chance encounter shortly after interviewing for a job at the Miami Herald in Florida.
While walking to get an ice cream with his son Lee, Kalinsky noticed sports journalist Howard Cosell standing on the corner of 5th Street in Miami.
“I didn’t know him, but I went up to Cosell, and I asked him what he was doing there,” Kalinsky said. “And he said, ‘I’m here to interview – ‘ and as he said ‘interview,’ I saw Muhummad Ali coming down the block. And Cosell said, ‘I’m here to interview the champ.'”
Ali, who had recently been called “unpatriotic” by then-Illinois Gov. Otto Kerner for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War due to his Islamic beliefs and ethical opposition to the conflict, had scheduled an interview with Cosell at a local gym. Kalinsky followed them with Lee in tow, in hopes of getting a few pictures with his Rolleiflex camera. He was stopped at the door of the gym by Ali’s trainer Angelo Dundee, who asked for a dollar in order to be let in. Since he couldn’t afford to give a dollar, Kalinksy thought on his feet.
“I thought this could be a big deal for me,” Kalinsky remembered. “And I said, ‘Well, I’m the photographer for Madison Square Garden.’ I had this camera around my shoulder, and I don’t know how it came out of my mouth, but it just did. And [Dundee] looked at me and he laughed, and he said, ‘OK, comedian, come on in.'”
Using the 12 pictures available on his roll of film, Kalinsky used his Rollei to snap images of Ali training, and sold the roll to the Miami Herald, which ran them with stories about Ali and Kerner. In 1966, he took another gamble and went to the Garden with the roll in hand.
“I went to the Madison Square Garden, and I showed my roll of film to John Condon, who was the head of boxing,” Kalinsky said. “And he said, if you’re coming to me, if you can come to me, if you have the chutzpah to come to me with one roll of film to be the photographer of the Garden, and then I have the chutzpah to hire you.”
From rock stars and athletes to politicians and popes, Kalinsky photographed thousands of faces at the Garden and elsewhere over 10,000 events, including the Concert for Bangladesh, a papal mass with Pope John Paul II, Elvis Presley’s final concerts in New York, the 1970 NBA Finals won by the Knicks, the 1986 World Series victory by the New York Mets, the 1994 Stanley Cup victory by the New York Rangers, one Republican National Convention, two Democratic National Conventions, the Concert for New York City in 2001, and a 1979 concert at the Garden starring John Lennon and Elton John which would be Lennon’s last live performance.
“The most difficult part of my job is when I’m not working, because I love to work,” Kalinsky said. “I love photography, and I love to create. Realistically, the most difficult part of my job is getting people to look good, and to be able to look like themselves at the same time.
“How I work depends on also what I’m photographing. If I’m photographing a concert, I want to make sure that I have pictures that show what the person is like, and to learn to try to make the photos that I take better than anyone else ever took. Actually, I’m sort of quiet in some ways and I’m very competitive in other ways. I know that if I’m doing a Knick game or any any sporting event, then I have to I drive myself to get not only the best picture I can, but the best picture that anyone got.”
The Miami training pictures would be the first of many that Kalinsky took of Ali, including the Fight of the Century against Joe Frazier at the Garden in 1971 and their sequel fight in 1974. Kaminsky would also suggest the “Rope-a-Dope” technique to Ali in his fight against George Foreman, and the two would be friends for over 50 years.
Kalinsky said that “I Am the King of the World,” a decade-spanning collection of his Ali photographs exhibited at the New York Historical Society Museum in 2019, is the work of which he is the proudest.
Kalinsky also had a close working friendship with a different kind of heavyweight, Frank Sinatra, having photographed his concerts at the Garden.
“Frank and I became very close,” Kalinsky said. “He came into my office at the Garden one day and he said, I want you to tell me all you know about photography in five minutes. And then five minutes turned out to be three hours, we had lunch. And so we became very friendly.”
Four days after Sinatra’s death in 1997, Kalinsky said, the crooner’s daughter Tina called him at his office.
“She was crying, and she called me with tears in her voice,” Kalinsky remembers. “And she said, ‘Of all the pictures that have ever been taken on my father, no one has captured his essence as you have.’ And that was the most defining moment of my career when she said that, because for her, for the amount of pictures that were taken of him in his lifetime, that she must have had access to – for her to say what she said, that was a very important moment for me.”
One of the biggest surprises of his career, Kalinsky said, came in 2001, when he was called and told that he had been named International Photographer of the Year by the PhotoImaging Manufacturers and Distributors Association, the highest honor in professional photography.
“I hung up on the guy,” Kalinsky said with a laugh. “I knew that I was good but I didn’t think I was that good, and I thought it was a crank call … but it turned out that it was true, and I won the award. And at that moment in my life, which was 2001, I felt like that was the most important thing that had happened to me.”
Since that win, Kalinsky has also received honors from the National Center For Disabilities, which he co-chaired for several years; the National Arts Club; numerous awards from his alma mater, the Pratt Institute; the Knicks’ Dick McGuire Legacy Award; and inductions into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame and the New York City Basketball Hall of Fame.
His work has also been added to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., and exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the New York Historical Society Museum and the International Center of Photography.
Additionally, Kalinsky is credited with authoring or providing photographs for 10 books, including “Garden of Dreams,” a look at the first 125 years of the Garden with a foreword by journalist Pete Hamill; “The New York Mets: A Photographic History” with a foreword by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo; and “Rabbis: The Many Faces of Judaism,” with a foreword by actor Kirk Douglas. An 11th book is on the way, he says, as is a documentary on his life to be produced by Frank Sinatra Enterprises.
Kalinsky last saw his beloved Garden on March 8, 2020, when the Knicks scored a win against the Detroit Pistons in their final home game before the COVID-19 lockdown. Since then, he’s stayed inside his Upper East Side apartment with his wife, June.
Now that New York venues are opening, he says, he’s ready to get back to work whenever the Garden calls him.
“I’m certainly not going to call it quits,” Kalinsky said.