“Christmas Eve,” like much of Simmons early work from the 1960s, uses candid shots and portraiture to comment on the daily experiences of African Americans across the country. (Photo courtesy of John Simmons) His exhibition, “No Crystal Stair: The Photography of John Simmons,” opened last November at the Museum of African American Art. The exhibit features images selected from Simmons’ archive that depict the profoundness of his early work. “When I run into somebody that has the same love [of photography] we begin a relationship,” Simmons said. “For them it’s mentoring, for me it’s like meeting this other person that loves what I love.” “Nobody’s telling me nothing,” Simmons said. “It’s [me] bringing to that experience everything that’s ever happened … All the things that make me happy, all the things that make me sad. Everything that I’ve ever learned. I click that shutter and at that moment, my point of view has been influenced by everything that’s ever made me, me.” Simmons considers landing the job at this time in history to be the best thing that has ever happened to him. As a photographer at the Chicago Defender, he approached his subjects with the goal of giving each image its own narrative. After developing his skills, he became Sengstacke’s assistant. When Sengstacke received an offer to be an artist in residence in Nashville, Tenn. at Fisk University, he invited Simmons to come with him. Simmons, who had not yet received a high school diploma, finished high school in Chicago so he could follow Sengstacke to Fisk. “I was about recording the life that I lived, [that] I saw, that I breathed, that I listened to,” Simmons said. “My education at USC was so thorough that any time somebody put me under the microscope of … ‘Do you know what you’re talking about?’ I knew because I had learned it at school,” Simmons said. “I’d get on a set and I’d be with those white boys and they would challenge me on something. Before they knew it, I was running down what I learned at USC. They had to back up a little bit because they hadn’t been to school.” Simmons has used his experience at USC to provide students with the knowledge he gained throughout his career. Simmons has inspired many and helped aspiring photographers that he’s met, causing many to call him a mentor. “You sit there as an audience member and you wait for the next picture to come on,” Simmons said. “And you’re not [fulfilled] as an audience until all those pictures together with dialogue and sound turn into a narrative.” As a teenager in the 1960s, Simmons began working for the Chicago Defender, the first Black publication in America. His first mentor Robert Sengstacke, a photographer at the paper, took him under his wing after seeing what he could do with a camera. He gave him a book, “The Sweet Flypaper of Life” by Langston Hughes, with photos by Roy DeCarava, that Simmons said has guided his career and experience as well as those of many other photographers. Regardless, Simmons said he found his time at USC to be rewarding. He believes learning from School of Cinematic Arts professor Sherwood “Woody” Omens about screen graphics made his entire education at USC worth it. Simmons recalled the famous Black icons he got to see in Nashville during the tail end of the civil rights era. John Simmons captures the souls of his subjects in each photograph, as is seen in his work “Man with a Pistol” from 1967. (Photo courtesy of John Simmons) “I do my TV shows, I take pictures, I paint and I do my thing,” Simmons said of his life following his time as a professor at UCLA. For 26 years, Simmons served as an associate adjunct professor of cinematography at UCLA’s School of Theatre, Film and Television. Simmons said going to USC was a bit of a culture shock coming from Chicago and Nashville. Simmons’ journey began with street photography. A camera in hand, on the roads of Chicago, he captured life as he witnessed it. Simmons described the differences between the mediums of cinematography and photography. While they have similar aspects, like capturing the image, light and composition, Simmons finds a photograph to be more like a painting. “I don’t think once since I’ve met him have I ever seen him with a frown or unhappy,” Assraf said. “For him it’s about going out and giving back … If he believes in you and he sees something of himself in you, he will help you no matter what.” “I learned so much from him and even today, I’ll get on a set and I know exactly where an idea came from — and it came from him,” Simmons said. The shock did not end there. Upon entering USC, Simmons soon learned that he was the only Black person in the film department. Despite this challenge, the knowledge Simmons obtained was beneficial on sets where people would doubt his credentials. “The narrative is told in one frame,” Simmons said. “When I press the shutter, I want to be able to tell you everything I can in that moment.” Among some of his projects, Simmons helped Aaron Douglas, a painter from the Harlem Renaissance, repaint a mural for a whole year. It was a town buzzing with talent and culture, Simmons said. As he learned from Sengstacke, “It has to have a ghost in it — it has to have a soul.” “I grew up in Chicago, on the south side of Chicago, working for a Black newspaper and Muhammad Speaks newspaper,” Simmons said. “I had never been around a lot of white folks before.” However, Simmons explained, with cinematography, the viewer expects numerous images accompanied by elements like sound. These expectations are not present with photography. Unlike cinematography, where Simmons has to execute what has been agreed on by a director, producer and network, Simmons said when he takes his still camera in his pocket, there’s nobody else’s vision to execute but his own. Eli Assraf, a junior majoring in business administration, first met Simmons at a gallery in West Hollywood. The two were staring at the same picture and began to bond over their mutual love of photography. Assraf cites Simmons’ approach to life as one of the cinematographer’s most inspiring traits. While taking classes at Fisk, he met professor and soon-to-be mentor Carlton Moss, who told him he was a natural cinematographer and should pursue cinematography at USC. Born and raised in Chicago at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, John Simmons, a USC alumnus, witnessed some of the most important moments in history. He is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers and won an Emmy for Outstanding Cinematography for a Multi-Camera Series in 2016 as director of photography on an episode of the Nickelodeon series “Nicky, Ricky, Dicky and Dawn.” “Although it was meant to be photojournalism, I was trying to tell [a] story with one picture,” Simmons said. “Who would show up?” Simmons said. “Angela Davis, Nikki Giovanni, Miles Davis, Alice Coltrane, Eldridge Cleaver. You know, it was like the spot. It drew me right into a Black cultural mecca.” Simmons’ exhibit at The Museum of African American Art is on display until March 29.