1960s Chicago: 'A Good Time to Have a Camera'

Johnny Simmons, ASC, has been going through his old still-photography negatives and scanning them, a process that has triggered many memories and attendant emotions. He is working on pulling an exhibit together, and there’s a lot to sift through.

“When you’re working as a cinematographer, it’s a creative endeavor, but you’re also satisfying a client,” he says. “You experience the creativity within the realm of your assignment and your collaborators. My own photography and my own painting — that’s a place where I can truly be free. It’s all about time and my own expression, and it’s always been that way.”

Some of Johnny’s images go back to when he was a teenager in Chicago in the 1960s, years when he was influenced and impressed by the work of Gordon Parks, W. Eugene Smith and the painter Romare Bearden. Taught photography by Robert Sengstacke, Johnny was working as a newspaper photographer at age 16 for the Chicago Defender, one of the oldest African-American newspapers in the country.

“I have a lot of images from the 1960s,” he says. “I have a picture of Julian Bond in Nashville having a real personal moment; he’s probably about 30 years old. And there’s a photograph I took of him a few years ago, when he was in his late seventies. I’m finding negatives that are not only creative but also historically significant, like the Black Panthers and the Democratic convention in Chicago in the 1960s. There was so much intense stuff going on. The ’60s was a good time to have a camera.”

Johnny is also seeing photos he took of friends and family when they were young and full of promise alongside photos of them now, with decades of experience behind them. “You can’t imagine the emotions it triggers,” he says. “It’s been said that within a lifetime there are many lifetimes — when you are a kid, you are completely a kid; when you are a teenager, you are completely a teenager, and so on. Every period of our life seems so full. I look at these photographs and wonder who that guy was who took them. I wonder who I really was at that time.”

Johnny cites a photograph he took of antiwar protestors outside the Hilton Hotel in Chicago’s Grant Park during the Vietnam War. “I didn’t see that picture until recently. I had printed a lot of photos from that proof sheet, but I never saw that one.

“I have a wonderful photo of Black Panthers that I call ‘The Last Supper’ because most of those guys didn’t make it. I took pictures that demonstrated the rebellion — you know, fists in the air and all that. Those were the pictures that were exciting to me when I was a 17-year-old guy. A 60-year-old guy prints a picture that tells a different story.”

He points out another example, a photo of Angela Davis making a fiery speech. He recently came across a different shot he took of Davis, freshly out of jail and looking vacant. “And that picture is the picture, if you know what I mean,” he says.

I asked Johnny if he had followed the path that many cinematographers tread: embracing still images first, and then eventually feeling the need for movement. He said his journey was different.

“I started painting early on, and when I first approached photography, it seemed like a mature art already. Within its nature, it has depth, perspective, spatial relationships —all the things a painter creates. The whole idea with still photography, as Cartier-Bresson says, is the decisive moment. It’s a convergence of all the visual elements that stimulate us.

“Cinematography, on the other hand, is a continuum in terms of composition, not to mention the storytelling aspect, and it’s made up of montages. One image is juxtaposed against another, and we begin to tell a story. That’s a completely different ballgame.

“Sometimes it’s a little difficult to get back into the rhythm with still photography when I’ve been shooting a lot of movies, especially when I’ve been operating the camera. When you’re operating, you’re interested in movement and composition. You’re interested in flow. You’re interested in one image against another. With still photography, you’re trying to tell the story in a decisive moment.”

Stay tuned for details about Johnny’s photo exhibit.




Subscribe Today

Act now to receive 12 issues of the award-winning AC magazine — the world’s finest cinematography resource.

Print Edition   Digital Edition
April 2021 AC Magazine Cover March 2021 AC Magazine Cover February 2021 AC Magazine Cover