“Let me tell you this. I was seven years old; I was on the bus and there was a policeman on the other side of the bus, nobody else . He has this big patch on his shoulder a fluorescent oak tree. And I said, “hey officer, what does that oak tree mean?” He said “I’ll tell you what that means N……. if you don’t sit yourself down on the other side of the bus, I’m taking you off when I get off and I am going to put your black arse in jail”. That was my very first conversation ever with a policeman at age seven”. John Simmons ASC
Simmons was born in 1950 and grew up in Chicago, Illinois, USA. His passion for photography began when he was about 7 years old. All thanks to one day, when a man came over to his home to shoot a family portrait, and as he would finish with one roll of film, he would hand it over to the young impressionable Simmons to put in the canister.
“The way the photographer went about his business” appeared like magic to the young boy. As Simmons kept putting each roll of film into the canister, he was intrigued by the story behind it, how a photograph could capture and immortalize life’s single moment. He impatiently waited to see the developed images.
It was not until 1965 that Simmons got really into “snapping life’s moments”. John had a friend called Louie Sengstacke; his older brother was Robert “Bobby” Sengstacke an “incredible photographer” who took pictures for his family-run newspaper The Chicago Daily Defender. Historically, considered to be the “most important” newspaper of what was then known as the colored or Negro press, today it is the most prominent and historically significant African American newspaper.
Simmons’s interest in photography meant naturally he would befriend Bobby, and in time Bobby took him to the darkroom and he would watch as Bobby printed the photographs, the joy sealed with Jazz music playing in the background. One day Simmons borrowed a camera from Bobby and went out taking snaps just for the thrill and the journey began. Alt spoke to the African-American photographer/cinematographer and artist who has photographed iconic figures like Nina Simone, Castro, Rosa Parks and worked with Aaron Douglas, in the first of our new “The Big Interview” series where we talk to pioneering and leading voices in the arts.
I’m a photographer, cinematographer and a collage artist. But I’m here to talk about my photography. I started taking pictures when I was 15 years old that was 1965. That was a long time ago and how I got into it was a friend’s older brother, Bobby Sengstacke he was an amazing photographer, he passed away three years ago.
Bobby’s brother and I use to look up to Bobby because he was a big boy. He was hip, he had cameras and stuff and a sports car. He did all these incredible assignments and had a darkroom. I would go there, and I’d watch him create that magic, bringing those pictures to life. It was something that I really wanted to do. I was excited about it.
He gave me a book called the Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes with photographs by Roy DeCarava. The story was about a black family’s day in Harlem. Roy DeCarava’s photographs were candid pictures of street life. It just felt like something I could do with a camera; I could relate to those pictures and that community.
I could see myself in that book and the people I knew. So, Bobby and I went to a convention in New York, his family took us. The Sengstacke family owned The Chicago Defender Newspaper, which was the oldest black publication in the country. It was established in 1906 and it was always a very controversial revolutionary publication.
They used to smuggle that paper to the South, if people got caught reading that paper, they could go to jail, they could be hung. It was a terrible thing to be caught with The Chicago Defender, in Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana any places like that. So, we went to the National Negro Publishers convention in New York and I imagine it was 1965 Bobby gives me a camera I said “hey man let me shoot something with that camera”. So, he gives me the camera with the film, and I shoot the people at the convention and when we develop the film, he says “hey man you got an eye.” It was from that moment on that he became my mentor.
And he took me under his wing and spent time with me in the darkroom and shared all types of photographers with me like Gordon Parks, James Van Der Zee, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Frank, Dorothea Lang, all the people that shot candid pictures of street life, he shared with me. It was interesting because you know at that time being 15, 16 years old. I was pretty bulletproof there wasn’t anything that would hold me back. I didn’t have any fear. I would put a camera in people’s faces and not question it at all or talk to them I would take a picture and keep moving. Actually, there is a technique to doing that which you eventually learn, falling into the rhythm of the environment so you can be stealth, invisible so that nobody sees the moment that you take that picture.
Civil Rights Photographer
Well that really did not happen for me until like 1967. I was 17 and you have to understand it was this incredible cultural revolution that was happening throughout America not just because of civil rights, because of the Vietnam War, the whole free love hippie movement that was going on. It was a very creative and passion time, lots of artists, lots of jazz. Everyone was being expressive on all levels and I just wanted to be a part of it, you know, I just want to find my place. I was young so I was trying to find my place anyway, you know.
I wanted to be an artist, you know, I wanted to be a jazz musician. I wanted to be something that said something to somebody (laughs) and I found photography and those photographs allowed me to take a position and allowed me to have a point of view. I look back on those photographs now and it is wonderful to maintain curiosity.
Maintain a certain kind of innocence observation, be able to let the situation portray itself. My obligation is just to be able to frame it and see it the way I see it. And that comes from the life that a person lives to be able to create a point of view. To be able to tell a story.
Iconic figures Fidel Castro
I mean I have photographed a lot of people Nina Simone, Angela Davis to name a couple. But the most memorable person I have photographed was Fidel Castro in Cuba. We were down there doing a documentary, it was 1973. And we are outside shooting and these Cuban officials walked up to us and said would you mind shooting something for us our camera crew is late. We said no we would not mind at all so they took our identification checked us out for security reasons and we went into this room, shot an interview with Philip Agee a defective CIA agent and so we turned the film over to them and they said would you like to ride with us?
We said yeah! So, we get in the back of the Jeep and leave the building as a Jeep pulls out in front of us and its Fidel Castro. And we drive to this event and we get out of the car and he signs a waiver for me. Castro gets on this stage and begins to speak. I’ve always been in love with a 50mm lens, you have to be relatively close to the subject and I would say that the photograph I took of Fidel, I am probably about 20 feet from him. And I have a wonderful photograph. (I’ll send it to you Joy). That is my most memorable photograph and the other one that I love is a photograph of Rosa Parks at her birthday party, I love that picture. She is so sweet to have done so much you know those are two of my two favourite pictures.
Another one is a man who influenced me greatly Aaron Douglas he was an artist from the Harlem Renaissance. (Aaron Douglas (1899–1979) I was so fortunate that I was able to help him repaint a mural. I was in college I guess I was in my second year at college and I worked with him for a year. He had painted the mural in the 40’s and he had been given a grant to repaint it. And I have to say that he shaped me. He shaped my vision, and a lot of the way that I see things, he shaped my concept of composition, he helped me discover that.
I am a cinematographer and a photographer
As a photographer and being employed I worked for The Chicago Defender daily newspaper as I said and I worked for the nation of Islam Muhammad Speaks newspaper but those were assignments and I would get paid. But I carry a camera every day, so I mean like I always carry a camera I have a camera right here and one behind me. I will take a picture at some point today. So, photography never really felt like a job and I guess it was my second year in college a man named Carlton Moss came to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. Fisk University is an historical Black college. He used to come twice a month and do this class he lived in Hollywood and he would come to Nashville and do this class called: The Image of The Black Man in American Cinema.
And he would run all these films, we would sit there and critic how we were being depicted from Birth of a Nation to Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? You know all kinds. Carlton one day came over to my darkroom and looked at my work and said, “you have the eye of a cinematographer”. I had no idea what a cinematographer was I had never heard that word before and at that point he began to send me a subscription to American Cinematographer Magazine. And eventually sent me an Arriflex camera that some people owned in California. I have to tell you this about Carlton, he was going to do a movie about W.E.B. Du Bois and spent a lot of time with him and was Paul Robeson’s and Lena Horne’s road manager. He worked with Orson Welles and John Houseman at the Mercury Theatre. And he did a movie called the Negro Soldier that was for a Robert Kaplan fight series, a propaganda film they made about World War II. He was blacklisted during the McCarthy era and his career was basically destroyed along with a lot of other people. He had to revive his career and the people that sent me the camera Cal and Roz Bernstein, they hid Carlton and his wife Lynn in their attic as they prepared to surrender on New York warrants by the House Un-American Activities Committee. So that just gives you an insight into that character Carlton.
One day Carlton comes by my apartment, which is off an alley and that cost about $60 a month so, you know what it looks like, and he has Ousmane Sembene with him who is the father of African Cinema. He made a picture called Money Order and another picture called Black Girl, an incredible filmmaker. And I open the door and there he is and he has got this beautiful African woman, French speaking, and she is his translator, and honestly I had never seen anybody as articulate as this translator, it was like you were talking to Sembene it was seamless and he said to me, “You’re a cinematographer.” Second time I am hearing it.
So, Carlton nurtured that, and we eventually started making documentaries together and he helped me get a scholarship at the University of Southern California(USC), graduate school and I guess after that my career was off to a start. I made documentaries with Carlton for years and I made commercials, music videos, feature films. And now I do TV.
There’s a big difference between being a cinematographer and a photographer. As a cinematographer I am always interpreting somebody else’s narrative. Someone else’s idea I create the visuals for, create the look, it is a very collaborative situation and there is a lot of responsibility. Somewhere there is someone sitting in their house writing a story. They’ve been up all night and eventually they will meet a producer and that producer will invest their time in the next step and then they will get a crew, find a director put all that hard work and all that preparation into the hands of the director and the director will put all that work and all that stuff into the hands of a cinematographer. By the time I crawl behind the camera, I’ve got all kinds of people, all kinds of people talking to me, you know, it is like very elaborate and it has changed greatly over the years because when I first started it was film and there wasn’t a monitor. People had to trust that the cinematographer was actually interpreting the idea.
They could look through the camera, look at what you are doing. What if they don’t understand exposure, if they don’t understand shadow and light? Or if they don’t understand movement and composition. Maybe they do I don’t know. Directors like Debbie Allen, I shoot with her a lot, she always knows exactly what lens she wants, where it should be, she knows what she wants. A lot of people are very knowledgeable and they make the process easy and they don’t depend that much on a monitor. But when I do a TV show trust me I have 30 people telling me, that it’s a little too dark, can you go a little closer… so that’s the experience. When I go out in the street with this (camera). There’s nobody there. There’s no time pressure, there is nobody that has an opinion of where I should put this or where I should put that. I’m totally free to tell my own narrative, have my own point of view. Nobody saying, “hurry up.” So, I don’t know if I answered your question, but I can tell you about it.
Digital vs Film
You know, I wouldn’t say that it’s made it easier. It’s immediate and I guess the idea of having a monitor that everybody looks at and the monitors now are different from the earlier days, they are very sophisticated extremely expensive and they are very accurate it acts as a confirmation. The director, the producer, make-up, wardrobe they step up to the monitor and they see what they are going to get. So, it’s a confirmation but that doesn’t mean that it’s easier because there’s a lot of conversation that happens around the monitor. In this digital world people don’t say cut, they don’t call cut like they used to. Because in the old days they called cut because it was a monetary decision. I mean not just monetary, but also time. If you ran out of film, you would have to load the camera and that takes time. But in this digital world they can go all day and not call cut. You know, it’s not spending money on the materials. You know it creates a difficulty for editors I am sure, I have to ask “can we cut while she is putting that make-up on. There’s no reason to be rolling like that right now.” And they would be “yeah yeah yeah cut.”
So, I can’t say that it’s easier. I personally I don’t rely on the confirmation of the monitor. I trust my vision I know what my lighting is going to be like before I go in there. Cos, I do homework I look at the set, I talk to the art director about the mood, time of day, you know I ask those kinds of questions. And then I look at the monitor maybe, I like it. Maybe I’ll turn the light out. Maybe I will make something darker. I guess in that sense the digital world helps but what is wonderful about digital work is the democratization of technology we have been able to place storytelling in so many people’s hands. I mean people have made wonderful films with iPhones and small cameras; this camera is a 4k camera? You can shoot a story with this camera you know, I mean when I was coming along 100 feet of film, 3 minutes, was $100 and then $100 to process and then you have to find someplace to go look at it. And if I wanted to do a test when I was coming up, I would have to go to the rental house and do the test because I did not have insurance. If I wanted to test filters I had to go outside and just stand in the rental house and look out the back door cos they were not going to let me walk away with that $100.000 camera and bring it back later. Now I can do that, I can take a digital camera and go shoot something. Young people, old people, anybody can tell their story. Not only that, but with all the different post effects you can shoot different realities. So, you know things have changed, the cream rises to the top, you know those stories that mean something rise to the top. I think there is a problem too, everything is rather transitory. When I was growing up if there was a song, it could be the song for the summer. I mean there is a soundtrack to my life I am 69 years old. My early years are marked by a soundtrack but not only a soundtrack but certain films that would come and create cultural changes. I will just give you a crazy example Superfly, for instance Ron O’Neal in Superfly he had all that straight hair and all those slick clothes and platform shoes. By the end of the summer they had hats with hair attached to them to look like Ron O’Neal. Now you know a movie comes to the theatre stays there for two weeks then it goes on some platform like Netflix it disappears into a mirage of so many we can barely find it, right. Things are temporary. It’s just like photography, so many photographs in the digital world are never printed and don’t make it into a frame. You know they end up on Instagram, Instagram what a beautiful name. I go on Instagram and see some beautiful pictures when I come back later on, they are replaced by new pictures. It is like the news, if George Floyd had not gotten killed when everybody was at home, everybody stuck to their TVs and their computers, it probably wouldn’t have been as impactful as it is and it probably would not have been as impactful to the entire world. You know because everybody stopped. You can’t not say George Floyd’s name everybody knows it. End of Part One
Part Two will be in the October 2020 digital and print issue of Alt A Review