John Simmons Oral History Project

John Simmons Oral History Project

We are honored to hear the life and history of renowned photographer and cinematographer John Simmons. Partnering with documentary filmmaker, Tiana Alexandria Williams, we have recorded some of his life story and experience. Looking forward to this project growing and developing over the course of 2024.

John Simmons, Oral History Project, October 8, 2023, Los Angeles, California

I was born in Chicago in 1950. I have a sister, her name is Schaun. My mother was from Louisiana - Shreveport, Louisiana. And my father was from Mobile, Alabama. He was 20 years older than my mother. And it’s very interesting because I was working on a collage and it had Harriet Tubman in it. And I was trying to decide whether or not to put some dates underneath her. And as I was thinking about her, I realized that my father was probably around 13 years old when Harriet Tubman died, which meant that he grew up in a community of freed slaves. And I thought that was pretty mind blowing, because that doesn’t make it ancient history. It makes it pretty current - that his childhood was surrounded with those people.

John Simmons was born in Chicago in 1950. As a teen in the 1960s he began taking photographs with his friend Bobby Sengstacke and worked for the Chicago Defender, the oldest Black-owned newspaper in the US. In the 1970s he studied art at Fisk University in Nashville and moved to Los Angeles where his career as a cinematographer is renowned. He just won his fifth Emmy in December! And all the while Simmons has never stopped taking pictures or making art. See his collage currently on view at Wilding Cran Gallery here in LA.

There is a deeply inspiring connectivity of mentorship that Simmons embodies. Through his own past experiences and those that he carries on to aspiring artists today.

Archival mycelium, as we think of it, is the connectivity of creative artistic communities - over time and space - generations and geography. Archives are connected because people are connected.

When we began looking at a photograph from 1950 of a collective of artists in Washington DC, The Little Paris Group, we did not necessarily expect to find ourselves interviewing our illustrious Los Angeles neighbor, John Simmons. But as we are continually learning … everything is connected.

John Simmons studied with, befriended and was mentored by the artist Earl J. Hooks (1927-2005). Hooks was a part of the Little Paris Group and a student of Loïs Mailou Jones. Hooks also went on to educate students, like Simmons, at Fisk University in the 1970s with colleagues Stephanie Pogue, Martin Puryear and David Driskell.

John Simmons was so kind to have a conversation with us about his relationship with Mr. Hooks. As we talked more, John’s stories were incredibly moving. His work and creative worlds are expansive and astounding. We sat down and started recording. Partnering with archival producer and documentary filmmaker, Tiana Alexandria Williams, we are thrilled to work on this oral history project and expanded biography.

Cornell students viewing the premiere opening of “Black Images” Earl J. Hooks and John W. Simmons, photographic exhibition, Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall, Cornell University. Monday, November 9th, 1970. Photo by Russell C. Hamilton. Estate of Earl J. Hooks.


A huge thank you to Tiana Alexandria Williams for her insightful collaboration.

As always, thank you to Bing Hooks for showing us the mycelium.

Sarah Battle for her enthusiastic commitment to connection.

Thank you to Yamit Shimonovitz for her wonderful cinematography; Francesca Gabbiani and Eddie Ruscha for their time, expertise and studio space recording conversation no. 1; Helen Kuskin for her meticulous production assistance.

Thank you to the Simmons family for their incredible kindness and generosity.

And thank you to Johnny. We are so honored.