African- American Photographer/Cinematographer John Simmons: is currently available for interview. b. 1950, Simmons grew up in Chicago, USA. The now LA based Simmons’s passion for photography began when he was about 7 years old. All thanks to one day, when a man came over to his home to shoot a family portrait, and as he would finish with one roll of film, he would it hand over to the young impressionable Simmons to put in the canister.
The way the photographer went about his business appeared like magic to the 7-year-old Simmons. As he kept putting each roll of film into the canister, Simmons was intrigued by the story behind it, how a photograph could capture and immortalize life’s single moment. He impatiently waited to see the developed images.
It was not until 1965 that Simmons got really into snapping life’s moments. John had a friend called Louie Sengstacke; his older brother was Robert “Bobby” Sengstacke an incredible photographer who took pictures for The Chicago Defender which the Sengstacke family owned. Historically, it is considered the
“most important” paper of what was then known as the colored or Negro press, the most prominent and historically significant African American newspaper in the U.S.A.
Established in 1906, The Chicago Defender newspaper is the oldest black-owned publication in the country. Simmons’s interest in photography meant naturally he would befriend Bobby, who became his mentor and in time took him to the darkroom where the photos were being developed.
Simmons would watch as Bobby printed the pictures, while Jazz music was playing in the background, one day he borrowed a camera from Bobby and went out taking snaps just for the thrill.
Later, when Bobby developed what Simmons took at the convention, they were both impressed by the mastery of the work. At that point in time, Bobby gave him a copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes containing pictures taken by Roy DeCarava. John fast proved his ability as a capable and talented photographer, joining the Defender as a very young staff photographer with Bobby’s approval.
When Bobby showed Simmons work by Gordon Parks, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Roy Lewis, Bill Abernathy, and James Van der Zee, among others. It was at that moment when Simmons realized he loved candid street photography. All the photographers he looked up to were taking shots in black and white, and he borrowed that tradition. As time went by, with Simmons’s eyes behind the camera, he fell deeper in love with black and white photography and perfected his craft.
To Simmons, a black and white shot “complimented the narrative” of what he was seeing, and that was his passion — taking photos with a story behind it. Each time he would take a picture, he would apply all his life experiences into capturing a perfect picture of the moment. He said: “As time went by, I began feel that black and white was more direct. …I always strive to make images that tell a story. Every time
I take a picture, I bring my entire life experience to that moment. Every click of the shutter is a totality of the music I’ve heard the, the love and pain I’ve seen and lived and has shaped the way I see”.
Each click of the camera’s shutter was like new “music” he had never heard before, singing the love and pain he has seen, lived through, and shaped how he viewed the world. Decades later as a working cinematographer, and two Emmys behind him Simmons has started exhibiting the photographs he has taken over the last 40 years. His most recent exhibition is on at the Museum of African American Art “No Crystal Stair: The Photography of John Simmons.” 2019 Los Angeles.
Image credit: 4_Angela-Davis-Nashville-TN-1972-copy-x540q100
For Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn, Simmons earned an Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Multi Camera Series in 2016. He earned another two Emmy nominations for his work on Pair of Kings in 2011 and 2012. In 2019, he was a key part of the Los Angeles Area Emmy-winning creative team behind the PBS SoCal documentary project Finding Home: A Foster Youth Story, which chronicles the lives of teens preparing to begin new lives outside the foster care system.
List of exhibits: • Museum of African American Art “No Crystal Stair… November 3, 2019 – March 29, 2020, Los Angeles, CA • Kenkeleba House and the Wilmer Jennings Gallery “Vision 1020” March 8 – May 2, 2020, New York, NY • Wilmer Jennings Gallery at Kenkekleba House “Time, Light and Ritual: Photographs by John Simmons and Frank Stewart” June 4 – July 29, 2017, New York, NY • The Perfect Exposure Gallery, “Life in Black and White” April 12, 2018 – August 24, 2018, Los Angeles, California
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