By VICTOR SLEDGE, November 2021
John Simmons is a photographer, painter, collagist, and Emmy Award-winning cinematographer who has been capturing Blackness, its complexities, and all its iterations since the mid-1960s.
The prolific artist recently held multiple exhibitions of his art and photography throughout Los Angeles, including at the J. Paul Getty Museum, The Jean Deleage Gallery at CASA 0101, and Aziz Gallery. This exhibiting work has been lauded by viewers, including filmmaker Ava DuVernay, who said, “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.”
Simmons’ career started under his mentor, Bobby Sengstacke, a well known Civil Rights photojournalist in Chicago in the 1960s. Much of Simmons’ early work captures his subjects with a photojournalistic sense of narrative, and when Simmons first picked up a camera in 1965, the first year Black Americans were legally able to vote, he also recognized an element of protest in his work.
However, Simmons’ photography isn’t solely driven by the need to capture the struggle of the Civil Rights Era or the need to immortalize the strife of that period. His work is driven by his genuine love for the people he comes into contact with and the experiences he’s had throughout his life.
“Our personal affinities create our realities,” he says. “I started photographing those things that I had an affinity toward, which were the people in my community and the life that I was exposed to.”
Although he does have work from the height of the tumultuous Civil Rights Era, including photographs of prolific Black activists and artists such as Dr. Angela Davis and Nina Simone, he says, “The affinity for my subject matter transcends any of that because it’s a basic connection and love for the people that I photograph.”
Simmons leads with a loving eye in his work, which allows the humanity of his subjects, not just their circumstances, to speak for themselves. And that eye of his is one of the most striking and consistent elements of his photography.
He has a gaze that is so essential to his work. When you view his photography, cinematography, or even his collaging, it’s not only about the subject or story he captures or your perspective as a viewer: you see the world starting at the blink of his eye, right through to the snap of his shutter.
Like most photographers of his caliber, Simmons’ unique gaze comes naturally to him. It’s not something he goes out of his way to synthesize.
In fact, he says, “I don’t go out to take pictures.”
Instead of going on the hunt for his subjects, Simmons explains that he simply carries a camera with him on a daily basis and lets the world bring his subjects to him.
“I feel like my subjects and I are meant to cross paths with each other and share that moment,” he says.
And those fated moments that can’t be manufactured are exactly what brings that element of his gaze alive in his work.
He says, “There’s a certain kind of intuitive moment that happens, compositionally and emotionally.” And that’s the moment that his viewers get to see in his photography.
Simmons also has an interesting way of conveying this moment and the story it holds through his photography. Hisphotos are in black and white, often boasting a muted yet vocal story of his subjects.
“Black and white cuts to the chase. It’s about the narrative,” he says.
Simmons’ photos are only intensified by the lack of color. The black and white allows his viewers to focus on the essence of the photo itself. The look in his subject’s eyes, the wear of their clothes, the grit on their faces – these are the elements that carry the viewer through the experience of a John Simmons photograph.
“The narrative speaks in a very subtle way,” he says. “It’s a whisper.”
Although only a whisper, that narrative that comes from a combination of Simmons’ keen eye and whatever scenes the world brings to him speaks so boldly in all of his photographs.
Sengstacke once told him, “The only photograph worth printing is a photograph that has a ghost in it. It has to have its own soul that speaks beyond the picture.” It’s clear that advice has helped shape the way Simmons tells stories through his photographs.
Now, as his work exhibits across Los Angeles at The Getty, the Jean Deleage Gallery, Aziz Gallery, and graces the collections around the country such as Harvard University and the Center for Creative Photography, Simmons has found himself in the company of the artists whose eyes he admired as a young artist, like Robert Frank and Dorothea Lange.
“A lot of those photographers shaped me and made me see how important this contribution is historically and culturally,” he says.
As a young fan of theirs, he says, “I wanted to know how they dress, what they eat, what time they go to bed. What do they do in their lives that makes them see that way?”
But in a way, Simmons has answered his own question through his maturation as an artist.
He says, “We’re the sum total of all of our experiences. Every morning we wake up new, shaped from the day before. That determines how we see things.”
Growing up in Chicago at that pivotal time in our history, working with other photographers like Sengstacke, exploring the depths of his creativity through different mediums of art – these are the creative and life experiences that inform, or rather, inspire an eye like Simmons’.
He explains, “When I press the shutter on the camera, my whole life is coming into that moment.”
The paintings he’s seen, the music he’s heard, even the conversations he’s had, all of these contribute to his eye that has stayed pure and consistent since his early photographs.
It’s no wonder that even during the more strenuous points of history throughout the last 60 years he has been able to represent a full-figured, well-rounded depiction of Blackness that doesn’t limit the Black experience to its traumas. Leading with his own experiences and natural affinity for the people he encounters allows him to capture even the smallest glimpses of life as well.
When speaking on representing Blackness, he says, “We as a people have been able to smile, laugh, play music and do things in spite of what we go through...Nonetheless, everything is a reflection of those experiences.”
As an accomplished artist of many mediums and having only started fully focusing on his current photography since 2016, the continuity that following his affinities and experiences has brought him will surely continue to be one of the shining aspects of Simmons’ work.
After sitting on his photography for years, focused on art like his outstanding cinematography, he is now showing at multiple galleries with work that is just as provocative and true to his eye as the day he captured the photos.
“Before 2016, nobody was looking at the pictures,” he explains. “And now, the work is getting this kind of attention. That’s something that I couldn’t have imagined happening.”
Although he realizes this attention is partly because his photos chronicle a certain part of history, he also realizes that the element of continuity – that from the 60s to now, you can tell the same photographer captured these photos – influences this attention as well.
“All of a sudden,” he says, “it becomes an individual’s view of life, and I think that’s a testament to the value of the work.”
To learn more about John Simmons and his work, please visit his website.
To learn more about John Simmons’ multiple exhibitions in Los Angeles, please visit here. WM
Victor Sledge is an Atlanta-based writer with experience in journalism, academic, creative, and business writing. He has a B.A. in English with a concentration in British/American Cultures and a minor in Journalism from Georgia State University. Victor was an Arts & Living reporter for Georgia State’s newspaper, The Signal, which is the largest university newspaper in Georgia. He spent a year abroad studying English at Northumbria University in Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK, where he served as an editor for their creative magazine before returning to the U.S. as the Communications Ambassador for Georgia State’s African American Male Initiative. He is now a master’s student in Georgia State’s Africana Studies Program, and his research interest is Black representation in media, particularly for Black Americans and Britons. His undergraduate thesis, Black on Black Representation: How to Represent Black Characters in Media, explores the same topic.