Photography is My Heart

September 06, 2023


Bridget R. Cooks, Ph.D.


John Simmons has been building an archive of Black American life since he was a teenager growing up in Chicago in the 1960s. His unique observational skills have captured poignant moments that otherwise would have passed unnoticed. The selection of photographs curated for this exhibition is a modest offering of the subtle and beautiful ways in which Simmons stops time and encourages viewers to linger. They provide a sample of a lifetime of documentary and creative work in still photographs that spans over fifty years. 

Known primarily as a cinematographer, Simmons started his creative life with collage works on paper and photography. He was mentored by photojournalist Robert Sengstacke whose pictures in the Chicago Defender defined Black American culture in the 1960s and ‘70s. As a student at Fisk University, Simmons apprenticed for the great illustrator and muralist, Aaron Douglas, known as the father of the Harlem Renaissance. Simmons’ eye for composition and storytelling in a single image caught the attention of two monumental figures in Black film: Carlton Moss and Ousmane Semène who told him he was really a cinematographer. The potential to contribute to moving pictures is visible in Simmons’ early images such as Parade (1968) which looks like a movie still. Simmons’ camera performs as the protagonist surveying the multi-generational crowd of community members looking to their right from the edge of a Chicago street. A young man running into the shot propels himself in the air to follow Simmons as their eyes meet. 

Moments in everyday life are a central focus of Simmons’ work. One of his most iconic photographs is Girl Eating Ice Cream (1967), taken when he was only seventeen years old. He  was at an ice cream shop when he slipped between two folding chairs. Always camera ready, Simmons took the photograph of the curious young girl holding a balloon while she was enjoying her ice cream cone and the misfortune of his fall.  

In Two Shoes (1967), Simmons focuses on a less fortunate little girl. Taken on a hot day in Nashville, Tennessee, the photograph of her legs and feet conveys her meager circumstances. She wears two different shoes, one dressy and one casual, both worn down from use.

Beginning in 1976 with the film “Two Centuries of Black American Art,” made for David C. Driskell’s groundbreaking exhibition of the same name at LACMA, Simmons’ Emmy award-winning cinematography has shaped the perceptions of generations of movie, television, and music video viewers. Yet it is photography that has remained a sacred form of expression for him. Based in Southern California, Simmons’ recent work documents his community through new classic photographs such at Fight Like a Girl, Los Angeles, CA (2019). Simmons spotted the young girl who looks back at him with confidence during a women’s march that flooded the downtown city streets. She holds a handwritten sign above her head that reads “Fight Like a Girl.” The dots of the “i’s” have been replaced with hearts and a star, expressing the girl’s youthful pride. Surrounded by smiling, powerful women, the girl represents the next generation of feminist activism. 

Simmons’ travels as a cinematographer have taken him across the nation and around the world. He takes his camera with him wherever he goes, thus expanding the subject matter of his photography. When asked why he maintains his photographic practice after working for decades in television and film, Simmons responds, “Photography is my heart.” That passion for communicating with people through images makes his work timeless and powerful for new audiences. 

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We had the pleasure of attending Derrick Adam’s @derrickadamsny new exhibition “Come as You Are” at Gagosian Gallery last Thursday. Adam’s art radiates Black joy and relaxation, offering a vibrant celebration of life. The artist intentionally centers celebration in his work, infusing humor, color and imagination into the narrative of the black experience✨. His art is a testament to the power of creativity and leisure and this exhibition immerses us in a world where the familiar mingles with the absurd, emphasizing the power of imagination in our lives.
#contemporaryart #derrickadams #artlivesinconversation #blackartists
“Photography or image-based art will inevitably be the most influential art form moving forward, and the works that we’re dealing in—these small photographs from history—are the seeds of that movement.”
- Bruce Silverstein, Eponymous Gallery
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We want to thank everyone for coming out to our online exhibition, John Simmons “Photography is my Heart”. Your presence made a historic difference! If you weren’t able to make this one, you can still see the exhibition online!  The link is in the bio.
Thank you @johnsimmonsasc @bcooks2001 Family, Friends, Colleagues + 
#dotredco #photographyismyheart #losangelesphotgraphy #artlivesinconversation #photography #fineartphotography
📽️ Really excited to have Bridget R. Cooks, Ph. D. curate our next online solo exhibition, “Photography is my Heart” by John Simmons, renowned and Emmy Award - Winning Cinematographer and Multimedia Artist. 
📌 Join us for this online exhibition Wednesday, September,  6th 2023 at 5:30 PST. Link in bio to RSVP
📸cc: @meech213 
Share this with a photography lover! 
#dotred #johnsimmons #artlivesinconversation #laphotographers #artexhibition
We are collaborating with the iconic, Emmy-winning cinematographer and photographer, @johnsimmonsasc to celebrate his work in the FIRST online exhibit of “Photography is My Heart” curated by Bridget R. Cooks, Ph.D. @bcooks2001 Professor of Art History and African American Studies at the University of California, Irvine, and curator of the Ernie Barnes exhibition at the California African American Museum. 
We invite the arts community to join us as we reflect on the impact of Simmons' work while embracing the beauty of black life, history, and culture. 
Link in bio to RSVP!
#onlineexhibition #photography

Exhibition Artworks & Audio Narration

Church Lady Chicago Circa 1965. min
John Simmons
11x14 inches paper, 13x8.75 inches image and 16x20 inches paper, 18x13 inches image | Photography is My Heart

Exhibition Artists