By SAMANTHA PARKER, January 2020
Chicago in the 1960s inspired teenagers to listen to jazz, read Lao Tzu, carry Nietzche in their back pockets. That was the life photographer John Simmons recalls. At only sixteen years old he became a photographer for the city’s oldest black newspaper, The Chicago Defender, hired by friend and mentor Bobby Sengstacke. The Civil Rights photographer took Simmons under his wing, loaned him a camera, and taught him how to use it. He also gave him a copy of The Sweet Flypaper of Life, a literary work of poems by Langston Hughes and collection of photographs by Roy deCarava that portrays the everyday lives of black Americans in a revolutionary way. This literary work inspired Simmons and influenced his point-of-view for decades to come, transforming the ordinary moments and struggles of black Americans into art and elevating perceptions of black culture that still ring true today.
Now, the Museum of African American Art in Los Angeles is highlighting Simmons’ vision of the 1960s in a new exhibition called No Crystal Stair: The Photography of John Simmons. The title comes from the poem by Langston Hughes, and reunites Simmons with his idols on the centennial year of Roy DeCarava’s birth. “It was the 60s,” says Simmons. “I was sixteen, and photography saved my life.”
The curator, Larry Earl, thought No Crystal Stair was important to exhibit at a time in America when the innocence, earnestness, and revolution captured in Simmons’ honest photographs might share a similar space in our contemporaneous moment. For instance, the words of Langston Hughes’ poem, “Let America be America Again,” are written on the wall of the gallery. Simmons’ life and work is an ode to that poem and to being in America during its critical moments in history.
In No Crystal Stair, Simmons carefully edits his composition, taking care of the cultural lexicon of black people. A story unfolds in every photograph. It might just be a moment but that moment can be a full-blown narrative that captivates the viewer. Simmons captures candid moments throughout the exhibition, some as intimate as the embrace between two lovers in a dance hall. Others are juxtaposed with their depictions of the tumultuous backdrop of the era, such as of a young black girl leaving the frame as three white policeman hold the center, or another at arms length away from Angela Davis at a Civil Rights protest. The composition of every photograph is a testament to Simmons’ eye: his quickness, commitment, and boldness. One wonders how at sixteen he was able to be so caring and deft to capture an important body of work.
There is a photograph, dated 1967, of little girl titled Two Shoes. “I don’t usually crop photos,” says Simmons, “but the shoes tell the story. The little girl doesn’t look taken care of, looks neglected. It’s cropped because shoes tell one story, while the entire body tells something else. It's important to be careful.” He showed this photo to the public for the first time at a gallery in 2015, inspired by losing a dear friend to cancer and almost losing his own body of work in a fire. His friend, a writer, passed without ever publishing. When Simmons rescued his negatives from the garage fire, he printed and framed 100 photographs to ensure they would be seen. A print of Two Shoes was taken home from the gallery by a businesswoman, who bought the photograph with tears in her eyes, later hanging it by her door to be the last thing she saw whenever she left the house. In 1967, a little girl runs out of the house for two minutes and affects a life in 2015. This is the magic of photography, the continuum it creates between moments in time. “The magic of convergence,” says Simmons, “is how our lives intersect, how I get off the subway and see these people and all of a sudden I am where I am supposed to be.”
These same photos procured Simmons a scholarship at Fisk University to study art. There is a cinematic quality to his early work because each photo tells a story. It led to his study of cinematography at the University of Southern California, and to a successful career as an Emmy award winning cinematographer. When asked to compare his photographic work to his film work, he references Henri Cartier Bresson’s philosophy of the decisive moment in which a single image can tell an entire story. Whereas a film is a montage of images, Simmons’ photography is distilled into only one. “When I am doing my work it's just about that moment I am sharing with you,” he says. “It’s a big deal, you know, to narrow it down to that one image is big.”
Simmons stopped taking photographs in the 80s and 90s when he was shooting music videos for Tupac, Stevie Wonder, and Jessica Simpson to name a few. He now describes his practice as a photographer as unplanned; he never goes out with any intent, but he always carries a camera with him. “I carry a camera every day,” he says. “I don’t go out to take photos. I am living my life as I live my life, and I enjoy the narrative of that life. My photos represent a diary of how I see things. The totality of my experience is being reflected in every photo. When I don’t have a camera, I am studying light composition, I am observing its importance.”
Street photography gives us an insight into the times in which they are captured. Documentation has taken on greater meaning in the digital age of fast photography. For an artist who always has his camera with him, Simmons considers narrative to be more important than the medium, though he recognizes the changes digital photography brings. The power and value of the image has spread to the most remote parts of the world. If you pull out a camera, your subject could question you. Simmons doesn’t let that stop him. He develops what he calls a dance with his subjects as they move in a kind of rhythm, so capturing the moment is almost inevitable. “I step, I look, I frame,” says Simmons.
Simmons’ composition happens in an intuitive manner because he balances his frame from where he naturally tends to look. There is no real time to compose. When you pick up the camera where does your eye go? His method imparts a quality of honesty and intimacy in his work. A recent photograph, called Angel on Melrose, is of a woman getting her picture taken. “It is exceptional,” says Simmons, “because the light in-between the trees, the way the light hits these people, it’s only going to do that then, never again, even next year, same place, same time, it won’t be the same.”
Simmons approaches the candid moments that are a street photographer’s palette with optimism. He always considers how he can show his subjects in the best light. This is why his photographs from the 60s are both timeless and a cornerstone of a specific moment in the trajectory of his work. This convergence of paths is exactly where he needs to be. Even if he doesn’t have a camera he is framing a shot, looking at the lighting and what moves him. Simmons’ vision and what he is communicating in his photos is an exaltation of a moment that transcends its era in history. The joy found in the variety of his photographs allows you a glimpse into the similar joy of man who cares deeply about what he is capturing no matter the time.
“I try to make my pictures as honest as I can,” says Simmons, “for my subject and I to have an experience, and for our experience to say something about all of us.” WM