In the summer of 2007 Dave Mata spotted a crate of records outside a warehouse in Wicker Park. Mata, a musician and soul DJ, asked the workers inside if he could buy the vinyl, and also asked about work. He wound up with three crates of records and a job helping to clear out the packed space.
In the course of the job, he came across a life-size, full-length, mounted photograph of a young man with an Afro, his arms folded and his ankles crossed, leaning against a wall and laughing. “I was like, ‘That is one fly-looking dude,'” Mata says. “The dust and years had yellowed it in a cool way.”
Digging into the strata of junk, he found more black-and-white mounted photos, some of them under a broken-down convertible that was one of several cars abandoned in the warehouse. He found the young Jesse Jackson preaching, Dizzy Gillespie playing his trumpet, and four black men—photographers apparently, from the cameras on display—sitting on the concrete front steps of the South Side Community Art Center. One looked like the laughing dude.
There was a box filled with negatives in labeled envelopes. There were negatives of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., negatives of Abbie Hoffman, negatives of Lyndon Johnson. Next to this box was another one that was full of invoices; their letterhead said howard simmons.
“Then it all got too weird,” Mata says. “I realized this was all probably part of a collection. If I had lost my songs, records, equipment, I would have nothing to show for myself as an artist. And it seemed that that had happened to someone else.”
Mata put the materials aside. He found a Web site for a photographer named Howard Simmons, and its logo matched the letterhead. The address was in Oak Park. He called the number. Mata described what he had found, and the man on the other end exclaimed, “It’s like Christmas!”
Simmons had bought the warehouse in 1987 and turned half of it into a photography studio. It was where he’d shot ads for Schlitz Malt Liquor and Luster hair products. But it became a financial burden, and in 1990 a contractor who was already occupying the unrenovated half took over the entire building. Simmons cleared out, removing his equipment and all his significant negatives—or so he thought. Later he tried to collect the rest of his things but the contractor didn’t want to let him back in. Thinking none of it was all that important, Simmons didn’t force the issue. He didn’t realize the value of what he’d left behind until Mata returned it.
Mata discovered the life-size laughing man was Simmons himself, a self-portrait he’d taken with a timer. He’d taken the picture of the four photographers the same way; it had been used to promote “Through Eyes of Blackness,” a 1973 exhibition at the South Side Community Art Center by four of the first African-American staff photographers at metro Chicago newspapers. They were John White of the Daily News, Ovie Carter of the Tribune, and from the Sun-Times Bob Black and Simmons himself. Many of the mounted photographs Mata retreived were from this exhibit.
“The show was symbolic of a situation we never thought would be possible,” says Black, who was hired by the Sun-Times in 1968. “The civil rights leaders were beginning to impress upon the media organizations that if you really want to cover our situation and the community, you need people who come from that community. . . . We’d broken the barriers of the newspapers downtown.”
“The exhibit was Howard’s brainchild,” Black says. “He realized it was a historical situation. . . . He spearheaded everything, from the printing to the funding.”
The warehouse stash also contained some of Simmons’s later commercial work: head shots of John H. Johnson, founder of Ebony; a proof sheet of Michael Jordan pictures taken for a 1987 Coca-Cola campaign; a picture of Emmett Till’s mother, Mamie Till-Mobley, as it appeared in a print ad for a 1985 Channel Five retrospective on his murder; young Channel Five reporters Warner Saunders and Mark Giangreco posing with some of the ’84 Cubs at Wrigley Field.
In his Oak Park living room recently, Simmons, now 66, rummaged through boxes of old negatives that were new to him again: Mayor Richard J. Daley; Cook County assessor P.J. Cullerton, of the long-running Chicago political dynasty; his wife, Marva, when they first met over 40 years ago. James Brown, the godfather of soul. “I can’t believe I forgot that I shot James Brown,” Simmons said, shaking his head. “I shot so many people and so many places, so many times—man.”
Simmons grew up in Pittsburgh. His parents didn’t have much money, the family moved around a lot, and Howard and his sister found themselves sometimes sleeping with bedbugs. But he remembers his childhood as happy. He built model trains with his dad, who liked to screen movies for the neighborhood kids.
In 1962, after high school, Simmons enlisted in the air force and spent the next four years playing the French horn in service bands. During his hitch in the military he was bitten by the photography bug. He bought an Asahi Pentax SLR in the Philippines, read up, and began shooting arrangements he made in the barracks of Gillette razors and bottles of Aqua Velva aftershave. “I would try to make simulated ads. It was very primitive—I was just learning,” Simmons says. “There was something about spending time assembling an image as opposed to spontaneously capturing it.”
Leaving the air force in 1966, Simmons went to work in the photo lab of an ad agency in Pittsburgh. “I was excited because I wanted to become a commercial photographer,” Simmons says. “They said it would happen, but it never did.”
Even so, he built a portfolio. It consisted of high-style images he’d shoot on his lunch break—one was a woman’s reflection in a jeweler’s window—and self-directed photo-journalism, including pictures of civil rights demonstrations in Pittsburgh. In the summer of 1967 he showed up with his portfolio, but no appointment, at Ebony‘s offices in Chicago.
“I had never worked as a professional photographer anywhere,” Simmons says. “I just came from working in a photo lab in Pittsburgh, and I’d never gone to school. And I’m just thinking—it took a lot of gall to do that.”
John Johnson hired him on the spot.
Simmons covered Martin Luther King’s funeral in Atlanta in 1968 and a few weeks later photographed his somber widow, Coretta Scott King, at a rally in D.C. That portrait, featured in “Through Eyes of Blackness,” was lost to Simmons until Mata came across it in the warehouse.
Simmons left Ebony later in 1968, though one of his photographs of King speaking would show up on the cover in 1970. He and Marva were starting a family, and after he asked for a raise but didn’t get it, his friend Bob Black told him the Sun-Times wanted to hire a second black photographer. Spot news wasn’t necessarily what Simmons considered his calling, but he applied for the job and got it.
Simmons’s artistic approach to photography was apparent even when he shot news. Black recalls one of Simmons’s assignments: an el train had derailed along the Dan Ryan. His pockets stuffed with film, Simmons sneaked onto the toppled train, got low, and began shooting pictures up and out through a broken window. “People are going out in ambulances and firemen were coming in, and I was able to get a silhouette of a fireman and the helicopter coming down from that perspective,” Simmons says.
Black says, “He would always make a shot have a different look than something shot on the fly.”
When Simmons left the Sun-Times in 1976 to pursue commercial photography, he tried to persuade his friends to join him, but Black, Carter, and White would remain photojournalists until they retired. By then Simmons had three children to support, and the move meant leaving behind the security of a staff job, but he’d had enough of news. The photographers are often the first on the scene, he says, and the outcome isn’t always heroic. Simmons recalls a man who tried to rescue girls trying to get out of a burning building, but there were burglar bars on the windows. “It’s different if you go to a funeral, that’s rough enough,” Simmons says. “But when you’re there when it’s happening—I couldn’t be crying at work.”
Simmons compares the news photographer to a gunslinger in the old west: “A gunslinger can’t pull out his gun and aim—it’s gotta be automatic. Your camera and your exposure and composition—it all has to be automatic. Before being at the paper, I didn’t think of photojournalists being as bad as they are—bad, of course, being good.”
He and Black were looking through some old pictures one day when Black exclaimed, “Oh look, that’s John Drummond!” Simmons caught Drummond, a legendary Channel Two crime reporter, standing at the door of the mayor’s office, peering in, the entire City Hall press corps jamming the hallway behind him. Simmons called the 1972 photo Where’s Mayor Daley? The Illinois delegation Daley led hadn’t been seated at that year’s Democratic National Convention, and Daley had dropped out of sight while the convention went on without him. This was the day he was expected back, and he kept the press corps waiting almost three hours. Just as Simmons had figured out that one of the best shots of the train wreck was from inside the train, he knew the best shot of the vigil at the mayor’s door was from inside the office. “I just happened to step out at the right time,” Simmons says. “It almost looks like it was set up.”
As a studio photographer, he delighted in making orchestrated situations look real: To promote a Channel Five feature on homelessness, he was commissioned to photograph a bag lady. “We couldn’t find one in time, so we got a model, got some bags, some raggedy clothes, and we had our bag lady,” Simmons says. “Carol Marin said, ‘Where’d you find her? I want to interview her.'”
“Did you see the taverns I built?” he asks. Shooting an ad campaign for Stroh’s, he created an African-American bar, a Latino bar, and a white bar—one for each market.
To this day he’ll spend hours setting up a shoot, and he’ll be so focused on what he’s doing that he won’t even listen to music.
Simmons’s favorite studio was an old fish warehouse on Chicago Avenue that he bought in 1983. The place “just reeked,” he says; he used lemon juice to get the smell out. (Lemon juice is the commercial photographer’s friend, says Simmons: for instance, it also keeps apples from turning brown when they sit out for a long time at a food shoot.) Simmons turned that River North space into a 5,000-square-foot, two-floor showplace with hardwood floors, a drive-in dock, a kitchen in which to prepare food for shoots, a darkroom, dressing rooms, office space, and a monster six-by-eight-foot soft box that he mounted to a track on the ceiling and called Jabba.
A soft box is an apparatus that throws a broad, even light, and it’s a necessity for a commercial photographer. Simmons built his first one in the late 70s when he picked up an assignment from Burrell, a prominent African-American ad agency. “It was a difficult place to get into—they were using mainly white photographers at the time,” he says.
His commercial career got off to a promising start, with regular work from Vince Cullers. “Vince Cullers had the first black advertising agency in the country,” Simmons says. “I owe so much to Vince. He told me everything about the biz. I knew nothing. He told me what to charge, and he gave me work.” It was good work, and on primary accounts—Sears, Illinois Bell, Kellogg’s.
Simmons also shot the first cover for Black Family Magazine, which was launched in Chicago in 1980. A few years later, Eunice Johnson, the wife of Ebony‘s John Johnson, invited him to shoot fashion designs in Paris; some of these images were published in the magazine to promote the traveling Ebony Fashion Fair, an annual event. Simmons was the first non-Paris-based photographer the company used for that task.
Bob Black says mainstream newspapers finally began covering black stories when race became news they could no longer ignore. One of the most important of those stories was the open-casket funeral of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old Chicago boy murdered in 1955 in Mississippi. “Before that, it was as if black people didn’t exist,” Black says. “But Emmett Till’s mother was so intent on having the world see what had happened to her son. It was too dynamic to ignore.”
Yet years more would pass before mainstream media outlets, under pressure from civil rights leaders, began integrating their ranks. According to a 1981 issue of Jet magazine, John Tweedle became the first black staff photographer at any major American metropolitan daily when he joined the Chicago Daily News in 1964. Black and Simmons were hired in 1968, White and Carter a year later. “There hasn’t been a surge like that since,” says Black, who retired in 2006.
But the commercial photo industry didn’t feel the same social imperative, and eventually, Simmons says, he felt the effects of the difference.
He thought, for instance, that a mid-80s photo shoot with Michael Jordan for McDonald’s had nailed down a partnership with the giant Leo Burnett agency. Because of a scheduling conflict involving the basketball court, he had less than two hours at the Bulls practice site to shoot Jordan in four scenarios—one of them dunking the ball, another holding a hamburger. All four required their own settings, outfits, and lighting arrangements. There was a food stylist to be consulted. Simmons remembers that as Jordan dunked for the camera, a catering crew waited at the edge of the court to roll out carpet for the next event.
“The perspiration was just dripping,” he says. “I’d never shot under that much stress. But I pulled it off. I said, ‘I know I’m in now. I know Leo Burnett is gonna be my client.’ But something happened, and I didn’t get more work.” Simmons says, “Sometimes [agencies] would say, ‘Your work’s too ethnic,’ because I had mostly black faces. But what’s the difference—it’s more challenging to light black skin than it is white skin.
“If I could’ve broken in I’d still have that studio on Chicago Avenue. I put everything back into my work. I never spent money on fancy clothes or cars. I don’t gamble, smoke, or drink. There was a point where things were really moving. But business just didn’t advance as I’d hoped.”
When he gave up the Wicker Park warehouse in 1990 he moved briefly to a loft in the South Loop. But since the early 90s he hasn’t had his own studio.
After Mata reunited him with the images he hadn’t seen in more than 20 years, a longtime colleague, designer Pam Rice, invited him to show some of his works, old and new, alongside her paintings in Bronzeville this weekend. “That’ll be in there,” he says, motioning to a framed photo on his living room wall of Martin Luther King. So will a shot from “Through Eyes of Blackness” of a toddler peering out of a shack in Mississippi, and the portrait of Walter Payton that the Sun-Times used on its front page when Payton died in 1999. “Should I put Herbie in?” he wonders, studying a digital image of Herbie Hancock on his laptop.
Marva and their daughters gave Simmons his first digital camera in 2003, and Black and Victor Powell, another of Chicago’s few black studio photographers, showed him how to use it. “Over the years,” Simmons says, “African-American photographers have been very supportive of one another. Because, I suppose, there aren’t that many of us—and that’s from editorial to commercial. Victor was really instrumental in helping me get into and understand digital photography. He’ll always say, ‘Come on down, man, get on the computer [at his studio].’ And he’s the master of Photoshop, he’s the wizard.”
A profile of Harold Washington laughing is in the mix for the Bronzeville show. “Good old Harold,” Simmons says. So is a print of James Brown made from one of the negatives that Mata returned to him. “I got a Superfly guy with his cane and big hat—look at that Cadillac,” says Simmons. He shot that one on 47th Street in the 1960s, with a Harold’s Chicken in the background. He wonders aloud if it’s artsy enough, and if anyone would buy it.
If he hadn’t left the Sun-Times, Simmons says, he could have retired by now, like Bob Black, and he’d have more money. “But I have no regrets,” he says, “Photography didn’t make me rich but it put me in touch with some amazing people. If I was smart I would’ve gone into real estate!”
No matter who or what else he was shooting, Simmons always documented his family. “I have mostly black-and-white photos—all journalistic style, not posed,” he says. He even photographed his wife in labor with their first of three daughters. “I told her, ‘Just a minute,'” he says. “I put the camera on top of the car, put it on a self-timer, and had us walking to the hospital. It’s a great shot.”
Marva, a retired schoolteacher, laughs. “I was used to him pulling out his camera,” she says, “but he’d stop every two or three steps and I’m in pain.”
Simmons continues to shoot the most famous people of his time. He photographed Michelle Obama and Oprah Winfrey at a Women for Obama event and Barack Obama himself at a fund-raiser when he ran for president. But a recent picture that Simmons picked for the Bronzeville exhibit is nothing like those. It’s of a ragged line of colorful newspaper boxes, shot from an el platform. “I looked down and saw all the little boxes, and then a lady walked by with her little red scarf—click,” he says. “That’s why I like to keep a camera on me. It’s a good feeling when that one element comes by. Makes the shot.”
And it’s painful, he says, when you see the shot but don’t have a camera on you. “Or if you lose the negatives, or don’t have your images backed up and your computer crashes—it’s like being in a darkroom and your film gets exposed. It’s a fleeting moment.
“And then there are those moments when you don’t realize what you’ve lost,” he says. “When people find your images, like Dave did, and get them back to you. He brought back my past. You can’t put a price tag on that.”