Saturday, February 06, 2010

the Master of the Capuccino, and more..

The other day I had a chance to grab a coffee, well, more like a cappuccino, with a guy who makes a pretty good cup himself. In fact, he handled the espresso machine with the same kind of aplomb he did his cameras for the better part of half a century. The coffee was rich, and foamy with that deep swirl of flavor on the top, throwing out that sweet aromatic invitation to taste it. His pictures are pretty much the same way. It's hard to just throw them a cursory glance. They need to be looked at, appreciated. Seen and felt.

John Dominis (former LIFE photographer), New York City, Jan. 26, 2010
Coming of age as I did in the '60s, I was aware of his work even before I knew who he was. In fact, the weekend that I left home to try and make it in the 'big city,' my send-off dinner was my mom's attempt to reconstruct the unreconstructable: a perfect 'steak au poivre,' as seen in the pages of that week's LIFE magazine. Its 'Great Dinners' series made available wonderful dishes not only for the Mad Men of New York, but also Farmers in Iowa and Teachers in Utah. The steak au poivre was that perfect mix of color and texture, and the juicy meat fairly flew off the pages, right onto your plate. Of course, mom's version didn't really live up to the sizzle in LIFE, but it was, at least, a worthy try. It was years later when I discovered that in the pre-Photoshop world of the '60s, the photographer, my host, had to double-expose the pepper onto the meat. Mom was off the hook.

I'd also seen samples of his work from a dozen stories, as varied as a LIFE photographer's world could be, including one of the first sets of pictures of the 'Great Cats of Africa.' It was another time altogether from the world we know today, and so I was all the more pleased to be able to taste a great cappuccino made in the cozy kitchen of John Dominis. I'd known of John for a long time, arriving as I did at the end of the LIFE weekly, but it wasn't until he became the picture editor of People in the '70s that I really got to know him. (Of course there is always a risk when photographers become the picture editors: they know where all those expenses are hidden!) His work at LIFE was as varied as you can imagine, from food to the Olympics (Winter and Summer), and of course, the Great Cats. It was a world where the photographer was king. "When I got to Nairobi, I went out and bought a Toyota Land Cruiser," he told me with a grin worthy of a 15-year-old kid. "I took it to a body shop and had a hole cut in the roof so I could shoot out the top with my long lenses. I never ASKED anyone if I could buy it; I just DID." And even though I know that I will never again live in a world where a photographer can just BUY an SUV for a job without asking a bean counter, just hearing him tell the story made it rich enough to share.

(© 2010 David Burnett / Contact Press Images)
John Dominis (former LIFE photographer), New York City, Jan. 26, 2010
John came by that talent honestly. He, like an amazing half-dozen others – including Mark Kauffman, John Zimmerman, Wally Bennett and Hank Walker – all attended the same high school in Los Angeles before World War II, where a very talented photo teacher helped unleash inordinate amounts of potential talent. In all, some seven grads eventually made it to the ranks of the TIME-LIFE magazines. Amazing.

My rediscovery of John Dominis' work came about by accident a couple of years ago. Wandering through a big book store, I found a copy of the book John did with then writer Dick Stolley (later a LIFE editor) on Frank Sinatra in 1965. There is a fascinating piece of film of a chain-smoking Sinatra recording "Autumn of My Years" in the studio. He does it on one take. That is the same kind of brilliance Dominis brings to his pictures. One take. No need to fake it a second time. He is a photographer.

The book, "Sinatra: An Intimate Portrait of a Very Good Year," would be right up there in my two or three all-time favorite books whose photography, both artistically and by method, are the absolute distillation of what photojournalism should be. John's story of how he spent the first days with Sinatra without even carrying a camera, in an attempt to just become a welcome part of Ol' Blue Eyes' entourage, showed a cunning patience and understanding of how to work with people. Later, when the cameras were in evidence, his eye engaged, the pictures flowed like nectar. This book is, truly, one of the great photographic endeavors for anyone who values the idea of "taking" pictures, and not "making" pictures. The astonishing thing is that John, who worked for LIFE for nearly 30 years, was so adept at doing whatever needed to be done, as were many of his colleagues. There were specialists, yes, but the generalists were the masters of the turf. The switch from leopards in Tanzania, to succulent pepper steaks at the studio, and thence to Sinatra's old trick of pulling a tablecloth off a table, and leaving the plates behind, was seamless and wonderful in all regards.

In an age of specialization, when some photographers only shoot THIS camera with THIS light against THIS background, to become reacquainted with a genius like John is a sublime pleasure. He reminds you that in photography you can pretty much do anything you want to do, if you decide to make it happen (true, a good budget never hurts.) John is now working on a book of pictures done with Steve McQueen (if you are under 40 and don't know who is he is, look him up on Netflix; he was a prize!). His pictures of McQueen, done without any fixers, publicists or handlers, are impossibly fresh and candid. It makes you wonder why today's stars don't take note. Meanwhile, John retains a twinkle in his eye – you know the one; it's the same twinkle that must have charmed Sinatra four decades ago. And when you sip that cappuccino, you once again know you're in the hands of a master.

We're just sayin' … David


Anonymous said...

After Life ceased publication in Dec., 1972 and after John became picture editor at People Magazine, my first assignment from him was to take a picture of Pres. Ford's bust (or maybe it was the outgoing Nixon's bust) in the Palm Restaurant in D.C. I shot it in natural light as I was wont to do on most Life assignments. John was scathing in his criticism of the bad lighting and offered me a loan to buy lights. A lesson I never forgot. It's a wonderful picture of a wonderful man. Thanks.

Dick Swanson

Anonymous said...

He looks great. I remember his shot of 'Mickey Mantle Having A Bad Day.'