“Art is the totality of our being, the totality of our experience,” says John Simmons. “Every time I press the shutter, it’s the totality of who I am and all that I’ve experienced.”
The veteran photographer and cinematographer, who came of age in Chicago, has been tirelessly documenting the world around him since the 1960s, putting a spotlight on the minutiae of life, reveling in the beauty of intimate moments, and celebrating the unseen details of Black culture — a couple tenderly caressing on public transit; a church lady deeply, joyously overcome in a praise song; a young man, Will, proudly spread out on a Chevy automobile.
Simmons calls his documentarian eye an “intuitive quality that transcends time,” a befitting sentiment that his photographs reflect to a tee. His black and white images offer a seamless visual connection between decades, cities, and diasporas.
Simmons’s career began in his mid-teens, when Bobby Sengstacke, a well-known Civil Rights photojournalist in Chicago, gave him a copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life. The literary collaboration between Harlem Renaissance writer Langston Hughes and famed Kamoinge photographer Roy DeCarava interweaves image and text to chronicle a day in the life of a Harlem grandmother and her loved ones. Simmons found himself immediately inspired by the ability of these images to tell day-to-day truths of city life.
“I started taking photographs at a very interesting time and in a very interesting environment,” Simmons tells me over the phone. “Chicago was a very hip place in the ’60s, and it was a very politically active place. […] Growing up in the Black community of Chicago, there’s an affinity to the subject matter. My imagery basically reflects the life I live, as it does today.” Much of his work weaves a faithful, touching historic archive of Black Chicagoans and their everyday. (Simmons’s work, however, is not entirely limited to Black individuals. As he traveled outside of Chicago, he began to photograph a number of diasporic communities, touching on the interconnectivity of the cross-cultural human experience.)
Since his jumpstart in ’60s, Simmons’s archive of images grew more and more as he traveled across the globe. As his career progressed, he traveled across the United States and around the world to document aesthetics of the Black disapora, visually tying them together through black and white photography. He photographed boys in Trinidad and Tobago, Black Panthers in Tennessee, and nannies in Chicago, but their stories laced into one another through his intimate style of image making. He went on to photograph candid moments of iconic figures in Civil Rights and Black liberation movements, like Rosa Parks, Amiri Baraka, Nina Simone, and Angela Davis.
“Like a style of writing, it’s a style of seeing,” he says of his work. “A lot of people say that there’s a real continuity from my first photograph to my most recent photograph.”
His subjects seldom seem bothered by the camera’s presence; those who appear aware of the lens, welcome it — perhaps because Simmons made them feel at ease, as a familiar face in the streets of Chicago, Nashville, and beyond.
“I don’t know my subjects, I just take pictures,” he says. “My relationship to them is basically being grateful for them to be there. All my stuff happens in an instant. Whatever I’m photographing, if I look at it, it’s probably gone.”
“Our paths have to cross at that moment for that to happen, and the timing is so important, it can’t happen any other way. It’s supposed to happen at that moment,” he muses. “It’s amazing how all their experiences have brought them to that moment and all of my experiences have brought me to that moment, allowing us to share that moment in time and give it to everybody. I think it’s so amazing it gives me chills.”
Simmons speaks of his work with deserved pride. He pinpoints his 1965 photograph “Man With a Pistol” as a transcendent moment in his artistic course, calling it one of the first photographs he ever fell in love with.
But after decades of photographing, nearly all of his work was lost in a fire.
As he planned to move apartments, he stored his work in a friend’s garage. Just days later, he received a call telling him the garage had caught fire. He tucked his pants into his socks, he says, trekking amongst the rubble and the rats (he discovered that there had been grains stored in the garage that he had not been informed of) and went to rescue his negatives. He found everything stuck together; much was tainted by water damage. He then began the serious, painstaking process of trying to rescue these negatives. There are still photos he hasn’t recovered, and some he is still rediscovering when old friends send him scans of the images he’d gifted along the years, as he regathers his impressive body of work.
In a tragic instant, Simmons’s integral images of Black history were nearly lost — many still are. But those that remain, sing triumphantly, and sweetly.
Though an Emmy Award-winning cinematographer and professor of cinematography at the University of California, Los Angeles, Simmons’s photographic work has been far less known. The fire was a wakeup call; Simmons knew he needed to create a mark for himself and his historical work.
After a friend introduced Simmons to Perfect Exposure Gallery in Los Angeles, Simmons had his first solo show, It Started in the 60s, in 2016. Anxiously anticipating his public debut as an art photographer, Simmons says he didn’t know how his work would be received. His next show with the gallery, Life in Black and White, occurred in 2018; in just two months, over 2,000 people visited the exhibition, newly introduced to a vital new collection of images and a firsthand perspective on Black experiences since the 1960s.
“It gave new life to what those pictures were about,” he says of the exhibition.
Simmons still carries a camera every day. His website is an expansive, fascinating digital gallery of its own accord. “I never stopped taking pictures,” he says. But since the ’60s, “I feel like I’ve matured in my vision, in my storytelling. I feel like I express the narrative of humanity better now than I did when I was young. […] I have a real affection to this experience that we’re all having. If I didn’t do this, I don’t know what I would do.”
Editors note 4/19/19 4:05pm: This article has been updated to note that Simmons is an Emmy Award winner (the original article identified him as an “Emmy Award-nominated cinematographer”). It also now notes that Simmons’s first show at Perfect Exposure Gallery was in 2016, titled It Started in the 60s.