From The Getty to Ava DuVernay, the Brilliant Photography of John Simmons Gets the Praise It Deserves
Emmy Award-winning cinematographer, photographer, artist, and professor John Simmons is known for his decades-long career photographing the diversity of Black American life from the 1960s to the present. “I put my eye to a camera and fell in love. Photography saved my life because growing up in Chicago wasn’t easy. The camera became a compass, giving me direction and purpose, which it still does,” Simmons tells EDITION.
Simmons’ exhibitions speak to his work’s lasting impact and cultural relevance over the years. Mainly through striking black-and-white photographs, Simmons captures everything from everyday life in Chicago to Civil Rights demonstrations to compelling portraits of Nina Simone, Angela Davis, and many others.
“I’ve been taking photographs since I was a teenager. My mentor, Bobby Sengstacke, taught me the importance of telling a story when you take a picture. He said, ‘It’s that narrative that gives an image a soul,’” says Simmons. “When I press the shutter, everything I’ve ever done, ever smiled about, cried about, or loved shapes how I see. Nothing is more important than that moment; it’s what makes me see a picture. When I look at my images from my early years, I see how true this is.”
Simmons has also filmed music videos and commercials for Stevie Wonder, Britney Spears, Snoop Dogg, and other artists. As a filmmaker, Simmons has partnered with industry giants such as Spike Lee and Debbie Allen, plus has served as the Director of Photography for more than 25 television series. Additionally, Simmons earned an Emmy for his work on Nicky, Ricky, Dicky & Dawn.
“As a filmmaker who’s admired him and been inspired by him for decades now, it’s been a real thrill to watch [Simmons’] work through the decades and through these images,” said award-winning writer, producer, and director Ava DuVernay, at the Chronicles of Culture exhibition earlier this year.
Here, Simmons talks about five iconic photos from his portfolio, shedding light on monumental cultural moments throughout history.
“The photographs Unite or Perish and Democrats I consider truly American. I took both in Chicago in 1968, when both groups were protesting the Vietnam War.”
“Fight Like a Girl was taken at the Women’s March in Los Angeles in 2018, 50 years later, protesting the election of Donald Trump. My experience of growing up Black in America informed me when I picked up a camera the same year the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was signed into law under the 15th Amendment. Voting rights are still in jeopardy. What this means is something very personal to me; it’s my personal protest against injustice everywhere.”
“The photograph, Xmas Eve, is my favorite photograph. It's odd to feel that way. Xmas Eve is so sincere that it almost feels religious. The mother is reflected in a mirror, and the girl's eyes try to melt into her mother’s eyes. Although the little boy looks right into the camera, neither of us disturbs the moment. Sometimes, because we are in front of a department store, I joke that the little girl is probably only asking for a toy.”
“Window Writing is a very special image. I’m not sure if it’s the drawing the girl is doing, their relationship, or what, but many people are drawn to the intimacy of this image. It was taken in that same year of protest, 1968. All of my pictures have their own story. The thing about my pictures and most things we call art is that the experience is not intellectual; it’s emotional. Pictures move us, like music.”
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Photography by: John Simmons