Cinematography legend John Simmons talks us through his stunning photography work from the Civil Rights era

From 1965 to today, John Simmons has been capturing some of the most important people and moments in US history – all whilst carving out a cinematography career.

Date
20 October 2021

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In the world of television cinematography, John Simmons is already a legend. His legacy is one of praise and professionalism, attracting the companionship of directors such as Ava DuVernay, and more. But beyond his cemented legacy as a titan in the cinematography industry, John has procured an incredible body of work as a photographer. A recent resurgence of his portfolio across the Los Angeles art and photography scene has seen years of John’s beautiful, groundbreaking, and heartfelt work displayed in various galleries around the city. Now, we’re curious to find out more about John’s stunning – and at times dizzying – array of photography work. Mostly, he holds a prolific body of snapshots from the Civil Rights movement of the United States of America in the 1960s, being on the frontline enough to capture key moments in history. “I became interested in photography in 1965 and was influenced by my best friend’s older brother, Bobby Sengstacke, an incredible photographer,” John tells It’s Nice That. “From the very start and even today, photography is such a magical art form in its ability to freeze time, tell stories and affect the viewer way into the future.”

So how does John’s photography differ from his cinematography? Whilst there are astute similarities between the two – the dimensional feel in his photography, the beauty in his cinematography – John is quick to point out the way in which they stray. “Cinematography is a collaborative endeavour, and in TV, everything I do cinematically involves so many people,” he explains. “What I do creatively fulfils the wishes of the network.” In contrast, John’s photography evokes a far more isolated practice. “My still photography involves only me and the subjects in the pictures, so I’m completely in charge of the creative process,” he says.

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John Simmons: Nina Simone (Copyright © John Simmons, 1969)

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John Simmons: Rosa Parks (Copyright © John Simmons, 1990)

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John Simmons: Rosa Parks (Copyright © John Simmons, 1990)

More importantly, John always keeps humanity at the heart of his photographic practice. It’s perhaps why he was able to capture such shots from the turbulent time of the Civil Rights movement. As an African-American man himself, John was swept up in the frenzy of it all, sometimes even at the expense of his safety. “I knew I was living in a historically significant period,” he tells us. “It was the 60s and America’s values were shifting, there was a renaissance taking place in music, art, spoken word and politics.” The hippies, the feminists, Black activism, and mass demonstrations were coalescing to make the perfect storm. “I was working for two newspapers: The Muhammad Speaks Newspaper and The Chicago Defender, and both papers have a very significant place in the history of Black people,” John adds. “I was very happy to have the opportunity to capture these moments.” Most surprisingly, John had no idea his photos would go on to become important. “My good friend said I was just messing around with a camera and now the pictures are being taken seriously.”

Thankfully, John was gracious enough to sift through his images and pick out five shots he finds particularly striking, and what they mean to him looking back on them decades later. “My early photographs were taken through the eyes of a very young man,” he tells us. “When I think back to being a teenager and seeing things that were very special to me at that age, I was really someone else.” He wants us to remember that whilst his curiosity hasn’t changed, and his love of the camera remains, he’s “almost as much of a viewer as you are” when recalling these photos.

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John Simmons: Christmas Eve (Copyright © John Simmons, 1967)

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John Simmons: Girl Eating Ice Cream (Copyright © John Simmons, 1967)

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John Simmons: Love On The Bus (Copyright © John Simmons, 1967)

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John Simmons: Love On The Bus (Copyright © John Simmons, 1967)

The first is a picture titled Christmas Eve, a photo of a young girl looking at her mother. “I took it on Christmas Eve in Chicago, 1967,” John says. “There’s a feeling of sincerity that I love about this photograph. It feels like a very intense moment. It’s one of my favourite pictures.”

Then, there’s Girl Eating Ice Cream, a “captivating image that is so innocent.” John draws careful attention to the framing of the eponymous girl. “If you look closely it’s taken at eye level to the little girl. I was in the ice cream parlour and slipped to the floor between two chairs and the little girl walked up to me and I took the picture. That was in 1967. That little girl is in her 50s now.”

Love on The Bus is another of John’s favourites. “It’s a very romantic photograph,” he explains. “It’s one of my pictures that is loved by most people. It’s a special moment. It makes you wonder how long that love lasted. It may have been their only date.”

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John Simmons: Macon (Copyright © John Simmons, 1969)

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John Simmons: Unite or Perish (Copyright © John Simmons, 1969)

“Macon was taken at a civil rights demonstration in 1969,” John recalls. “A little girl was in a store picking out some candy when the white store owner told her to hurry and make up her mind. She said wait a minute and he slapped her and threw her out of the store. Her mother went to say something and the store owner threw her out of the store, too. The Black community boycotted the downtown shopping district.” It’s a harrowing story that rings familiar to even today’s sociopolitical climate, one that feels as current as it does archaic. “If you look at the policeman, one has on a baseball helmet. He’s a deputised truck driver from a nearby truck stop. One of those cops knocked me out that day. The man in the photograph has seen it all.”

Lastly, John points out Unite or Perish in Chicago, 1968, “which was a very important time during the war in Vietnam.” The anti-war protests were happening across the country, and growing by the day. “It’s a powerful image because the girls are so young and are so serious about their message. It was taken at the Bud Billiken Parade. The Chicago Daily Defender puts on the parade every year.”

With such a wealth of knowledge, expertise, art, and respect, it’s hard to know where John will go next. So much so, that even he doesn’t quite know. “I wish I could answer that question,” he says. “The pictures have taken on a life of their own, so hopefully, they will find their way into more galleries, educational institutions, and museums.” Overall, it’s the continued life and legacies of these photos which remain important to John. As beautiful works of art as they are, the photographs are important archival materials of US history. “The preservation and accessibility to this history are important to me.” With a book on the way by John, we eagerly await his next move.

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John Simmons: Window Writing (Copyright © John Simmons, 1968)

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John Simmons: Dancers in a Fight (Copyright © John Simmons, 1972)

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John Simmons: Fidel (Copyright © John Simmons, 1973)

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John Simmons: Archie Shepp (Copyright © John Simmons, 1971)

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John Simmons: Democrats (Copyright © John Simmons, 1968)

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John Simmons: Man on Car (Copyright © John Simmons, 1970)

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John Simmons: Man With A Pistol (Copyright © John Simmons, 1965)

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John Simmons: Blackman (Copyright © John Simmons, 1970)

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John Simmons: Free Huey (Copyright © John Simmons, 1968)

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About the Author

Joey Levenson

Joey joined It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in May 2020 after graduating from King’s College, London. Previously, Joey worked as a writer for numerous fashion and art publications, such as HERO Magazine, Dazed, and Candy Transversal.

jl@itsnicethat.com

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