In the exalted circle of Life magazine photographers, John Dominis was at or near the circle. He grew up in Los Angeles, attended Fremont High School and studied cinematography at USC, then left in 1943 to be a combat photographer in the Pacific during World War II. At Life he photographed the Korean War, Vietnam, Woodstock, Africa, Kennedy in Berlin and Nixon in China, and the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City (it's his iconic photo of Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos giving the Black Power salute on the medal stand). Dominis was also known for getting private celebrities to open up for his camera. He died Monday at his home in Manhattan, at age 92.
The Time-Life website today has a gallery of Dominis photos and a tribute from the editor of Life.com, Ben Cosgrove.
Some photographers are so skilled at covering a specific topic, or through the years have created so distinctive a feel in their pictures, that it’s possible to encounter an image — even an image one has never seen before — and say with something like certainty, “That’s a Leifer” or “That’s a Halsman” or “That’s a Nachtwey.” Familiarity with a recognizable style, meanwhile, hardly breeds contempt; a master can find countless ways to keep his or her vision fresh — even if the subject matter or the visual vocabulary remains relatively constant across decades....
Then there are great photographers whose work is so phenomenally varied — a uniform, unbroken excellence the only common thread running throughout — that every new shot one encounters might have been made by a different individual. John Dominis is such a photographer, and the photos presented here serve as a testament to the man’s enviable ability to see and to capture anything....
He was one of the first LIFE photographers to report from Vietnam. He covered Woodstock. He created what many consider the definitive photo essays on pop culture icons like Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen. He photographed big cats (lions, leopards, cheetahs) in Africa and he photographed the three Kennedy brothers — John, Robert and Edward — separately, early in their careers.
His 1965 photograph of Mickey Mantle tossing his helmet in disgust after a terrible at-bat is one of the most eloquent pictures ever made of a great athlete in decline and — just to keep everyone guessing — John Dominis also made some of the most memorable images of food ever to grace the pages of LIFE.
“The great thing about working with LIFE,” Dominis once said, “was that I was given all the support and money and time, whatever was required, to do almost any kind of work I wanted to do, anywhere in the world. It was like having a grant, a Guggenheim grant, but permanently.”
Dominis became the photo editor of People magazine in the mid-1970s and was an editor at Sports Illustrated for from 1978 to 1982. The New York Times obituary notes that Dominis was just one of eight Life staff photographers to come out of the photo classes at LA's Fremont High School. From the obit:
Mr. Dominis was a star among a stable of star photographers at Life, the nation’s most popular picture magazine, from 1950 until it ended weekly publication in 1972.
Ingratiating, self-effacing and ruggedly handsome, he was often assigned to photograph people who preferred not to be photographed. He spent a month in 1963 with the actor Steve McQueen (nearly feral in his aversion to publicity), who was not yet the superstar he became. He persuaded Frank Sinatra to indulge him for three months in 1965 while he went inside his prickly circle of friends, family, drivers and body men to photograph his life.
It was not charm, though, but the reflexes of a professional photographer that helped Mr. Dominis produce his most enduring image.
On Oct. 16, 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos ascended the Olympic podium in Mexico City to receive medals for finishing first (Mr. Smith) and third (Mr. Carlos) in the men’s 200-meter dash — along with the Australian sprinter Peter Norman, the silver medalist — Mr. Dominis was one of the few photographers who happened to be in the media pen 20 feet away watching and, he said, “expecting a normal ceremony.”
After the athletes had received their medals and “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, Mr. Dominis was looking through his camera lens when Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos, bowing their heads, each raised a gloved fist (Mr. Smith wearing the right hand and Mr. Carlos the left of a single pair of gloves) in a black power salute, to protest racism in American society.
“I didn’t think it was a big news event,” Mr. Dominis told Smithsonian magazine in 2008. “I hardly noticed what was happening when I was shooting.” The New York Times reported that the event “actually passed without much general notice in the packed Olympic Stadium.”
Mr. Dominis later dismissed his black-and-white picture as “not much of a photograph.” But it made the protest an indelible part of the iconography of the tumultuous 1960s.
Of the Big Sur photos, above and below, Cosgrove wrote previously:
"Consider, then, these portraits of Steve McQueen and his then-wife, the actor, dancer and singer Neile Adams...Here are two adults — seemingly devoid of self-consciousness, comfortable in their own skins and clearly at ease with one another’s bodies — captured in postures recognizable to anyone over the age of, say, 21, who has enjoyed an intense emotional and physical relationship with another human being. In other words, these two people really, really like each other.
"Far from the studiously audacious antics of today’s stars, the casual, evident pleasure that McQueen and Adams take in one another in John Dominis’s photos comes across as, paradoxically, quite innocent. Steamy, yes. Carnal, absolutely. But innocent....That Dominis was able to make such informal, revealing pictures — especially of an actor as guarded in his personal life as McQueen usually was — speaks volumes about the photographer’s talent; about the unprecedented access that LIFE enjoyed during its heyday; and, finally, about the predictable, closely managed 'allure' of so many of today’s stars.
"With McQueen and Adams, through Dominis’s lens, we’re reminded of what sexual magnetism feels and looks like: unkempt, raw, real."