These days there is much that seems to divide us. But John Simmons, 65, a cinematographer by trade, has spent the past 50 years photographing the black community, and in the process has opened a window into daily life that makes those divisions melt away. Showing a broad swath of community life, the photographs provide a moving look at the moments shared between friends, lovers and family. The exhibit, It Started in the 60's, will be on view until April 10 at The Perfect Exposure gallery in Koreatown.
Growing up in Chicago, Simmons had dropped out of high school and was trying to make his way as a painter. Influenced by "The Sweet Flypaper of Life" by Langston Hughes, he was trying to capture daily life through painting, but putting all that he saw and felt on canvas was a struggle. A friend and mentor, Robert Sengstacke, who owned the newspaper The Chicago Daily Defender, put a camera in his hand and sent him out on the street. Suddenly, he found a medium that already had a frame built in. "I was able to be the artist I wanted to be," he said.
He came back and showed Sengstacke his images. "He said, 'Dang, buddy, You've got an eye,'" and Simmons was off and running. With images of black photographer Roy De Carava dancing in his head, he was determined to document life of and on the streets of Chicago. "Growing up in Chicago, two things can happen: the environment can force itself on you, or you can force yourself on the environment," Simmons said the other day. "I wanted to have a greater effect on the environment than the environment had on me." His photography got him a scholarship at Fisk University in Nashville where he stayed for 4 years. He then moved on to USC, where he studied cinematography.
But photography has stayed with him over the years. The images on display present the beauty and poetry of daily life, a glimpse out a window, the swagger on the street, an embrace in the shadows. He has photographed Nina Simone, Rahssan Roland Kirk, Archie Shepp and other musicians, as well as ordinary people, now all frozen in time.
Photographers "can't help but put a frame around the world we see," Simmons says. "We are continually composing...I feel that my pictures tell a story, each one has its own spirit and soul...I have an affinity in general for people, just looking not disturbing...For me, our paths converged for one brief second and whatever I shared with them at that moment will last forever."
His work is a moving tribute to the people he's encountered over the years, most living their lives in anonymity, up until this moment.