John G. Zimmerman
Archive contact: Linda Zimmerman: firstname.lastname@example.org
In a career spanning over fifty years, John Gerald Zimmerman (b. Oct 30, 1927 – d. Aug 3, 2002) was one of the premier magazine photographers in an era when magazines set the visual agenda for the country. His hallmarks of technical precision and innovation produced groundbreaking photographs and influenced a generation of photographers.
Zimmerman’s formal training began with a three-year photography course at John C. Fremont High School in Los Angeles. Taught by Hollywood cinematographer C.A. Bach, the intensive program became famous for launching the careers of no less than six Life photographers. After graduating high school and a brief stint in the Navy, Zimmerman freelanced out of several Life bureaus. His first assignment as a Time staffer (Nov 1950) was a memorable one and presaged an instinct for capturing split-second action. Leaving the White House just as Puerto Rican nationalists attempted to assassinate President Truman, Zimmerman shot some of the first photos of the assault. Also noteworthy from this early period is a series of assignments for Ebony depicting the lives of African Americans in the Jim Crow South.
Zimmerman was hired as one of Sports Illustrated’s first staff photographers in 1956 and was instrumental in making the magazine a vanguard of innovative sports photography. His use of unique camera placements, remote controlled cameras, motor-driven camera sequences, slit cameras and double-shutter designs revolutionized the field.
Sports Illustrated photographer Walter Iooss Jr. recalled watching Zimmerman edit photographs of basketball star Wilt Chamberlain in 1961. “It was the first time a photojournalist had placed a camera above the rim of a basket. It was like looking at something from another planet. It had never been done before. No one had seen the game from there.”
Zimmerman left Sports Illustrated in 1963 to work for The Saturday Evening Post but would continue to freelance for SI throughout his career, amassing a remarkable 107 covers, including seven of the ever-popular SI Swimsuit issues. From the 1970s until his retirement in 1991, he combined editorial work for Time Inc. with commercial photography, shooting major advertising campaigns for Ford, Exxon, G.E. and Coca Cola, among others.
Summing up Zimmerman’s career in a Photo Magazine tribute in 2002, photographer Neil Leifer wrote: “John was a master of lighting, whether the subject was a 20,000 seat arena or Christie Brinkley on a beach. He was at ease shooting in 35mm or large format, as adept with wide-angle lenses as he was with telephotos. I put him up there with Avedon, Leibovitz, Penn, and Adams.”
An excellent description of Zimmerman’s early career can be found in The Masters of Contemporary Photography Series, Photographing Sports: John G. Zimmerman, Mark Kaufman & Neil Leifer (Alskog, 1975). He is included in The Great Life Photographers (Bulfinch, 2004).