By Shirley Hawkins
LOS ANGELES — John Simmons has been chronicling the joy and pain of Black America for more than five decades.
A photographer, cinematographer and artist, his work is currently being showcased in Capturing Beauty: The Artwork and Photography of John Simmons at the Jean Deleage Art inside of the 0101 Casa Gallery in Boyle Heights. It will be featured in a free online virtual tour until June 5.
Born and raised in Chicago, Simmons, 70, landed his first job working for the Chicago Defender newspaper at the age of 16. He found himself caught in the midst of the volatile 1960s with protests against the Vietnam War, the emergence of flower power, the civil rights movement and the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
His mentor, photographer Bobby Sengstacke, whose parents owned the Defender, inspired the young Simmons.
“Bobby turned me on to other photographers such as Gordon Parks and Roy De Carava,” Simmons recalled. “After I saw their work, I picked up a camera, I looked through the lens and I fell in love.
“It was a pretty hip period in Chicago,” Simmons said. “Everywhere you went, there was music, protest and art. I wanted to capture what was happening.”
With his deft eye and trusty lens, Simmons was soon capturing hundreds of photos of Black Chicago everyday life while shooting for the Defender and the Muhammad Speaks newspaper.
Some of his iconic photos include capturing eager crowds lining the streets during the Bud Billigan parade, an annual event in Chicago; a little girl joyfully licking a chocolate ice cream cone; a solitary man playing a lone saxophone at twilight; protesters at a “Free Huey” rally; two men playing pool in a dimly lit pool hall and the poignant and touching photo “Love on the Bus,” which captured two lovers cuddled together.
His camera also captured the images of such iconic figures of the era as Angela Davis, Shirley Chisholm, Fidel Castro, Romare Bearden, David Driscoll, Kathleen Cleaver, Louis Farrakan and Duke Ellington.
“I think that photographs resonate for people and speak to something inside of them,” Simmons said. “Photographs define who we are. They’re a record of our culture of who we are and how we live.
“Film director Carlton Moss taught a class at Fisk University where I got a scholarship to study fine art,” said Simmons, who added that Moss became his mentor.
He went on to study cinematography at USC and soon found himself working on documentaries with Moss.
After graduating, he immersed himself in the movie and television industry where he began shooting music videos for artists such as Stevie Wonder, the Whispers, Snoop Dog, Dr. Dre, Tupac, Naughty by Nature, Jessica Simpson and Fishbone, among others.
Simmons said that throughout his career he has always pushed for diversity and inclusion and has made it his lifelong mission to hire more people of color to work in the entertainment industry.
“I made it a point to have a diverse mix of people on the crews,” he said, recalling an incident that still sticks in his mind.
“I was doing a commercial on a huge set working with some rigging crew, and the camera was in the corner because we were going to shoot a test that day.
“So I uncovered it and was looking through the viewfinder and a man, up in the rafters of the stage, says to me: ‘Hey, buddy. Leave that alone.’
“I didn’t say anything. He said it about two or three times and he finally crawled down a ladder and said to me, ‘I’m sure Mr. Simmons would not want to see you playing with that camera.’
“I said, ‘You know Mr. Simmons?’ He said he did, so I said, ‘Well, it must be a different one, because I’m Mr. Simmons.’”
Despite his negative experiences, Simmons won two Emmys for his work on “Nicky, Ricki Dickey and Don” and a Daytime Emmy for a documentary called “Finding Home.” In all he has been nominated four primetime Emmys.
He currently works as the cinematographer for the hit Netflix television show, “Family Reunion” and the upcoming reboot of Nickelodeon’s “iCarly.”
He also serves as the vice president of the American Society of Cinematographers and is the co-founder and co-chair of the Vision Committee at the society, which is dedicated to expanding diversity and inclusiveness for minorities in the entertainment industry. He also is a governor of the Cinematographers Peer Group at the Television Academy of Arts and Sciences.
His other passion is compiling colleges that depict historic, social and political issues.
“One of my collages is titled ‘Twenty-Eight Inches,’” Simmons said. “That was the amount of space that Africans were allowed to move around in when they were being transported to America in the slave ships. I could not capture that information in a photograph, but I think that those types of stories are worth telling.”
Simmons said that he is often surprised to discover how his work has touched people.
“I had an exhibit of my photos several years ago and I walked in one day and there’s a Caucasian woman standing there staring at the pictures,” he said. “She said, ‘I just bought one of your photos. It’s the photo of the two mismatched shoes.’
“I have been fortunate to be very privileged my entire life and when I look at that picture I realized how grateful I am for the life I live,” Simmons recalls the woman saying. “I am going to put it near the front door of my home so that when I come and go I can look at that photo and be grateful for everything I have.”
The Casa 0101 Gallery is located at 2102 E. 1st St., in Boyle Heights. An interview as well as a virtual tour of Simmon’s work is available for viewing at www.casa0101.org.
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.