John Dominis: 'Life' photographer, vet who covered Korean War dies at 92
If longtime Life magazine photographer John Dominis had a specialty, it was that he was a supreme generalist.
He took famed pictures of Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen, both of whom could be touchy with photographers, but Dominis won them over to the point that he was allowed to spend long periods of time with them, taking shots that gave rare glimpses into their private lives. Dominis also did sports, capturing an iconic 1965 shot of Mickey Mantle tossing away his helmet after a bad turn at bat, and U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in defiance on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games.
But there were also photos from the wars in Korea and Vietnam, animals fighting to the death in Africa, the Woodstock rock festival, politicians, ballet dancers and even detailed close-ups of food.
Not having a specialty could lessen the chance of a photographer becoming a household name. But the last editor of weekly Life, Ralph Graves, said Dominis’ ability to do it all was his great strength.
“I often said, and still say today, that if I had to start a picture magazine with a single photographer,” Graves wrote in his 2010 book “The Life I Led,” “I would choose John Dominis. He was neither as famous as others nor as outstanding in this field or that field. But he could shoot everything.”
Dominis, 92, died Monday at his home in New York. The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest, according to a companion, Evelyn Floret. Dominis had a major heart attack last year.
John Dominis was born June 27, 1921, in Los Angeles. He traced his interest in photography to Fremont High School in South L.A., where he took photography classes taught by legendary teacher C.A. Bach.
In a lecture on his adventures as a photographer, Dominis said his first class assignment was to make a cardboard pinhole camera that could take a picture on a 4-inch by 5-inch sheet of film. The resulting photo, of a row of palm trees, was chosen by Bach — whose courses turned out numerous professional photographers — for special recognition. “He put it in the trophy case in the main hallway,” Dominis said, “and I was totally hooked on photography.”
Dominis went on to the University of Southern California where he studied cinematography and played football, including in the 1944 Rose Bowl game that USC won, 29-0, over Washington. But Dominis quit college before graduating and joined the Air Force.
In 1946, after his military stint, he stayed in Japan where he had been stationed, and picked up freelance photo assignments from the Saturday Evening Post, Colliers and the pinnacle of popular photojournalism magazines, Life. When Dominis volunteered to cover the Korean War in 1950, Life put him on staff. He stayed with the magazine for more than 20 years.
“The great thing about working with Life was that I was given all the support and money and time, whatever was required, to do almost any kind of work I wanted to do, anywhere in the world,” he told the Albuquerque Journal in 2008. “It was like having a grant, a Guggenheim grant, but permanently.”
His ability to put celebrities at ease was put to the test in 1963 when he was assigned to get photos of the 33-year-old McQueen. The camera-shy movie star had agreed to the shoot, but by the time Dominis arrived in Los Angeles, McQueen had fled to the Mojave Desert for a motorcycle race.
So Dominis, who also loved racing, rented a Jaguar. “I went out there in my car and met him,” Dominis told Life.com, “and I ask him, ‘You wanna try my car?’”
The two of them drove fast, together. And with the ice broken, Dominis was able to hang with McQueen for more than two weeks, taking pictures of him in a variety of situations, even in the nude.
The photographer knew Sinatra was going to be difficult, too. “I spent about a week without even carrying a camera,” Dominis said in the Santa Fe New Mexican of the 1965 assignment. “I just went to his shows, hung around, and was very quiet until he got used to me being there.”
Sinatra ended up including the photographer in his private parties, and even allowed him to get a picture of him shaving in a men’s room, with no shirt and a towel wrapped around his head.
One of Dominis’ most famous photos didn’t involve people at all — it was a 1966 action shot of a leopard in Africa about to pounce on a baboon. The photographer was candid in later saying that the photo was, in part, a setup. He hired a hunter who released a captured leopard in the area where there were baboons, most of whom scattered. “But for some reason one baboon,” he said in the 1998 book, “Life Photographers: What They Saw,” turned and faced the leopard, and the leopard killed it. “I got a terrific shot of this confrontation.”
He said that setting up pictures was more common in the 1960s. “It sounds terrible now, I know, and maybe my attitude would be different now.”
Life ended as a weekly in 1972 but still published on a less regular basis. In 1975, Dominis became picture editor at People magazine and then held the same position at Sports Illustrated from 1978 until 1982. Floret said he then returned to freelancing and took pictures for food books.
Dominis is survived by daughter Dori Beer of San Francisco, sons Paul Dominis of Sonoma, Calif., and Greg Dominis of Benicia, Calif., seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild. His first wife, Frances Clausen, died in a car accident in 1974. He was also briefly married to Anne Hollister.