Senior in Action – John Simmons, Two-time Emmy Award-winning Cinematographer

Marilee Marrero Stefenhagen
Former County of LA Public Library Administrator is having the time of her life as a retiree; meeting fascinating people who are active seniors, and volunteering for Soroptimist International of Norwalk and other women’s groups.

Senior in Action – John Simmons, Two-time Emmy Award-winning Cinematographer

by Marilee Marrero Stefenhagen

“I turned 70 in December 2020.  I feel exactly the same as I felt as a teenager.  I wake up every day with the same degree of curiosity as when I was young.  I’m fortunate my aches and pains are minor.  Once I move around, I feel good!  I eat no red meat or chicken, and maintain a healthy diet.  I practice Tai Chi – the poor man’s insurance policy – and have been trying to master the flow for twenty years.  I’m always in a state of becoming.  New challenges move me forward and keep me young, and failures are simply opportunities that hone my problem-solving skills.”

“The force that’s always moved me has been creating pictures; first by drawing as a child, then through photography as a teen. My mentor Robert ‘Bobby’ Sengstacke got me interested in photography.  He was a news photographer with the family-owned business, The Chicago Daily Defender.  My prowess behind the camera grew with practice, and I eventually won a scholarship to Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee, and later to USC Film School where I graduated with a degree in Cinematography.  I remember crunching through snow on my way home in Chicago, flipping on our little black and white TV and hearing the announcer say, ‘live from sunny Burbank, California.’ I vowed, soon as I was old enough, I’d go to California.  Left the cold and never looked back.”

“As an artist and photographer, I carry my camera every day.  I strive to achieve James Van Der Zee’s  motto, “Making the camera see what I see.”  Van Der Zee is one of my early idols, a famous Harlem Renaissance photographer, who died in 1983. I create collage art to tell the stories in my head.  When I take a still photo, I just steal the picture like a thief.  I don’t ask people to pose.  My mentor Bobby Sengstacke gave me a bible of street photographs in Harlem, titled The Sweet Flypaper of Life by Langston Hughes, with photos by Roy DeCarava.  DeCarava, like Robert Stack and Dorothea Lange, took street photos to capture history.”

“Some of my still photographs and collages can be viewed in a new online exhibit, curated by Jimmy Centeno.  Jimmy and I talked about creating an exhibit in The Jean Deleage Art Gallery inside Casa 0101 Theater long before the pandemic, and when Covid-19 forced the shutdown, we had time to make it happen.  My photos are from Chicago and other places..  The exhibit provides a historical context, from 1960s to present.  The exhibit is available for virtual viewing 24/7 until June 5, 2021.  Pieces in the exhibit are for sale.  For inquiries, please call CASA 0101 Theater at 323.263.7684, Monday through Friday, between the hours of 10:00 a.m. – 4:00 p.m.   In February  we held a Zoom webinar featuring Centeno asking me questions about the exhibit.  Members of the general public were encouraged to submit questions in advance by registering online for the webinar at  The Casa 0101 Theater is an amazing cultural mecca not far from downtown Los Angeles.  Some of my photographs are included in the collection at the Art Museum at Harvard University as well as the Center for Creative Photography (CCP), University of Arizona.  Ansel Adams established the CCP to preserve the history of photography.  Readers can learn more online at  “

“In the television industry, I need to interpret scripts visually.  Hopefully the viewers will get the message.  I just filmed Family Reunion for Netflix, starring Loretta Devine and Richard Roundtree.  When Richard Roundtree was called to the set, his whole persona came alive.  I admire that.  Next, I will be filming the reboot of iCarley for Nickelodeon.  I never stop looking at people; making up stories in my head all day, a narrative of imagery.  Cinematography has taken me across the globe.  I’ve been to Cuba numerous times, and to Africa; filmed music videos in France, and lived in Hawaii for three years while making films for the sugar cane industry.  The most exotic trip was to Morocco, to film a small historic village for National Geographic.”

“My family has vacationed in Costa Rica, Portugal and many other places, and I accompanied my daughter to Indonesia where she studied yoga. My wife Cynthia is a perfect match for me.  She does all kinds of creative things; teaches dance with the LA Parks District, writes, and creates ceramic art.  Cynthia keeps me on track; that’s a full-time job, as I’m easily distracted!  Who does the cooking?  We both do.  I’ve been making vegetarian chili while the weather’s been cool.  My wife is a good cook too.  My mother was born in Louisiana so I come from a serious culinary background. Our children are accomplished.  My daughter Chela works in Oakland at a new business called Sweet July, Malakhi is an artist and writer, Sancho runs a business in northern California, Sacha is a yoga instructor and business consultant; and daughter Veela lives  in Chicago, mother to my three grandchildren.  “

“The Getty Museum recently interviewed me for a blog, available at As I get older, I concentrate on activities that are positive.  I’ve decided not to participate in things that are toxic.  I spoke of the death of George Floyd during the pandemic.  Everyone was stuck at home, glued to cell phones and social media, living life through comparison.  George Floyd’s death changed our culture.  It brought a new curiosity about the fabric of humanity; sparked interest in every culture that has contributed to the world.  I hope this article has sparked your interest in my collages and photography.  Take my narrated virtual tour for CAPTURING BEAUTY:  The Artwork and Photography of JOHN SIMMONS, by visiting

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