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|| News Item: Posted 2002-08-08

A Tribute to John G. Zimmerman
Legendary sports photographer dies

By Brad Mangin

Photo by John G. Zimmerman

Photo by John G. Zimmerman
Legendary photographer John G. Zimmerman died this past weekend in Monterey, Calif.

Zimmerman, who is known as one of the true pioneers of sports photography and recognized by everyone as one of the greatest sports photographers of all time grew up in Los Angeles. He got his start in the business after leaving the Navy in the late 1940's. Zimmerman then took odd jobs working for International News and the LIFE Los Angeles bureau. When a job opened up as a LIFE darkroom technician in Washington D.C. Zimmerman headed east.

Sports Illustrated was fortunate to claim Zimmerman as one of their early staff photographers. His first cover for the magazine was on August 8, 1955, when his photograph of archery champ Ann Marston graced the cover of Sports Illustrated. This would be the first of his 107 SI covers spanning five decades.

Later Zimmerman cover subjects included: Paul Hornung, Jack Nicklaus, Althea Gibson, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams, Christie Brinkley and Elle MacPherson. That's right, Zimmerman also worked on five of the famous Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issues!

Zimmerman met his wife Dolores, a flight attendant, on an 83-mile TWA flight from Philadelphia to New York in 1958. Dolores became his business partner so she could spend more time with him and assumed all financial operations when he began freelancing.

Zimmerman also worked at Time, LIFE and the Saturday Evening Post.

To see a wonderful selection of Zimmerman's work and to read more about him, search online for a wonderful book written by Zimmerman, Mark Kaufmann and Neil Leifer entitled:

Photo by John G. Zimmerman

Photo by John G. Zimmerman
Photographing Sports:
Capturing the Excitement of People in Action
An Alskog Book, Published by T.Y. Crowell, Inc. 1975

(A link to this book on appears at the bottom of this page.)

Zimmerman's work will be featured in all six "Leading Off" pages in the new (August 12, 2002) issue of Sports Illustrated.

Several of our Sports Shooter members and friends had some personal experiences with Zimmerman.

Their stories are included below.


(Robert Beck, a Sports Illustrated staff photographer, had this story to share about his last meeting with Zimmerman)

At some point early on in my photo career, while working for Surfer Magazine, I heard about some guy selling a high speed still camera...Some Canon rig that shot 15 frames a second or something. I had never heard of anything so fast in those days. The fastest motor drive was probably five FPS. I got a hold of this guy and said I was interested. How did it work? Was it a Canon product or what? “No,” he said, “It wasn’t made by Canon.” Well, who did make it I asked. “I did,” he said.

That guy was John G. Zimmerman. I don’t know everything that John invented or developed or dreamed up in his career but it was a whole lot more than you, me, them or us will even think about in our comparatively puny photo careers. He was a genius. He designed cameras. He designed strobe systems and figured out to use them to help him make better images.

He was a hard worker. Heinz Kleutmeier said that they used to think it was arrogant of John to have three assistants on a shoot. Then they realized that John worked so hard that one assistant couldn’t keep up with him. Two couldn’t either.

It was with Heinz that I first really met John. It was a couple of years ago that we hooked up at John’s home in Carmel. He was exceptionally charming and the house (on the Spanish Bay course) was gorgeous yet
Photo by John G. Zimmerman

Photo by John G. Zimmerman
relaxing. His wife, Delores, was equally charming. We all laughed and told stories. Mine were not quite as good as John’s and Heinz’. Delores told her share of good ones as well.

We got cheap Mexican take-out and traded more stories. It was a great night. It is hard to explain but it really was a magical night. I listened to the history of photography as I know it. First hand. It was like being a member of royalty.

This past year I took Jim Gund and my assistant from Pebble Beach, Kojo Kinno, over to John’s after one of the rounds. We picked up some cheesy wine and a couple sixers of Beck’s Beer. John had said he was excited about having us over. US. The three stooges for all anyone cared.

I told him we needn’t stay long but I just wanted to say hi and have him meet a couple of the boys. Delores answered the door as warm and gracious as I remembered her. Right behind her was John with a smile wider than Half Moon Bay. He was beaming! "Come on in guys!" he said.

They offered us chilled champagne. There were plates of caviar out! Sure, uh, wanna beer John? They got a kick out of that. We told more stories and I egged John on to brag about some of his accomplishments. He told us. But it wasn’t bragging.

The early days of strobing arenas. Of traveling to far away places with cases and cases of gear. His Sports Illustrated glory days. The Marlboro Man campaign.

He finally started to query Kojo about his education and where he wanted to go with his photography. Kojo earnestly told his career plans and asked John what he thought the best way to go about becoming a big photographer was. John said, “I think getting into movies is the way to go...directing and such.”

Kojo went white and we all went silent. But we listened. We had to. John commanded that attention effortlessly. It was just the way he was. I could have stayed all night and listened to him.

To learn anything from someone like him is truly priceless. But the boys were a bit anxious to move on. So we bid farewell.

It would be my last to him and I kind of regret that. I really would have liked to spend more time with him. You would have too. Just to see that gleam of life in his eyes. That smile too. He was one of a kind.


Photo by John G. Zimmerman

Photo by John G. Zimmerman
(Kojo Kinno, 24, currently an intern at the Contra Costa Times, had this to say about that memorable evening in February of 2002)

It all started earlier this year at the Pebble Beach Pro-Am when Robert Beck, who I was assisting, asked me to name my Top 10 sports photographers. I told him a list of names who many would recognize or not. He then asked me if I knew who "John Zimmerman" was.

The name was familiar because I remembered Joe McNally talking to students at The Eddie Adams Workshop last year. McNally, who did the 2000 Olympic preview photos for Sports Illustrated with the multiple flash shots, talked about how John Zimmerman did similar kinds of photos long ago without the help of today's technology.

Beck then said that Zimmerman lived very close to where we were and asked me if I wanted to meet him. I said, "Yeah....Robert..." not thinking he was going to actually call him. He got the number and the next day Robert Beck, Jim Gund and I were at John Zimmerman's house eating snacks his wife made.

Within the couple hours we were at his home, I learned more than I have learned in 3 years in school. He didn't talk about the new digital cameras, or anything like that. He talked about how he never gave away his rights to his photos from back then and how his wife was the reason he was so successful in his career.

Watching him say that in a very humble way with a big smile, drinking his wine with his wife next to his side inside his beautiful house with 2 S.I. photographers and one Asian kid, I felt very lucky to be there and to have met "The" John Zimmerman.


(The great sports photographer Andy Hayt, a former staffer at Sports Illustrated, wanted to share his thoughts about John Zimmerman)

There are special people, who if you are fortunate can change your life's course. John Zimmerman was one of the kind people who out of his ability and generosity to help others changed the path of my career.

At the time I was 19 years old and a staff photographer for the Los Angeles Times. I would see John regularly around the Los Angeles sports venues and I was always impressed with both his professional and uplifting approach to each assignment. Whether it was an LA Rams game at the Coliseum or a Dodger game, the smile was always there along with his ability to give you a glimpse of how a true master of his craft performed.

John had a confidence in himself that was inspiring, and in it's own way it was a disarming charm that made him approachable and allowed one a glimpse at a man who had literally done it all in the business. I truly marveled at how he could always get to the bottom line of a story. Many people looked at him as being a technical genius, but his real forte was his ability to make anyone who he came in contact with feel special about themselves.

Photo by John G. Zimmerman

Photo by John G. Zimmerman
John was probably the single most influential person at getting me in the door at Sports Illustrated. It was through his friendship with then Sports Illustrated Picture editor and legendary photographer John Dominis, that led to my first meeting with the magazine. He arranged for me to meet John Dominis at his home in Los Angeles one morning while the SI crew was shooting a Dodger World series.

It was not so much an interview, but one kind man introducing me to one of his best friend's. Most photographers know how our fraternity is one of close friendships that are interconnected in less then the usual six degrees of separation. John Zimmerman and John Dominis went back to high school days together growing up in Los Angeles

How often does one get to say thanks to someone for there unique help in helping you grow. I like to think that what was special about John was that he took the time and helped a young person to move through a door and took great happiness in seeing someone succeed onto a new level. After meeting John Zimmerman and John Dominis, I realized that the pictures were important, but what mattered most was they saw something special in people, and they were unselfish and recognized how important it was to help up and coming young people. My thank you came back to John every time we saw each other and he could see me growing in a very unique position.

I always look at the people in my life who have shared a part of themselves in teaching life's lesson's. Be it Jerry Rife, Con Keyes, Lee Romero, Hy Peskin, Rich Clarkson, Walter Iooss, John McDonough, Bill Eppridge, John Dominis or a host of other fine people and friends, I always have a special thank you for a true gentleman, John Zimmerman.


(Ronal Taniwaki from Nikon Professional Services had this to say about his friend)

I am deeply saddened by the passing of John Zimmerman. In my 26 years in the business, I’ve gotten to know and work with many fine photographers but only a few stand out in my mind as good guys.

Gentleman John was one of those guys.

When I first met John, I was scared to death. A big time Sports Illustrated photographer wants to talk to me about fill flash? I remember pulling up to his mansion in Beverly Hills, walking past the tennis court and pool thinking to myself “Big bucks, big ego”

That misconception vanished the moment he came to the door, shook my hand and invited me in for a drink. We sat around in his kitchen for a while, talking about flash and then he took me out to his workshop. There he showed me a contraption he had machined to hold (4) Speedlights in a Soft box. The rig was set up so he and an assistant could run along the beach with a model and shoot TTL fill flash at sunset.

Another impressive innovation of John’s was a split diopter dome port for an underwater camera housing. This allowed him to correct for the refractive index difference between air and water. One of his most memorable shots is of a diver half in and out of the water.

A warm smile and a friendly demeanor was John’s trademark. Never pretentious, no ego stroking needed. He exuded an aura of quite confidence when he worked and was always pushing the technology envelope to try something new.


(Legendary sports photographer Rich Clarkson had this to say about his good friend John Zimmerman)

Photo by John G. Zimmerman

Photo by John G. Zimmerman
In 1972, John Durniak got me away from Sports Illustrated to cover the Munich Olympics for Time magazine and for some strange reason, Time could only get one photo credential. Thus, I did it all by myself which was a task before the Israeli massacre. When I got back to New York (with two Time covers in succeeding weeks), I told John I would never cover an Olympics by myself again. It is just too much.

Thus, four years later, Time asked me to do the Montreal Olympics and I was able to get two photo credentials along with two tech assistant credentials. John asked me who I wanted to "help." I immediately said John Zimmerman and called him to discus it. Zimmerman said okay and thus, we worked together for an Olympics.

I had known and admired him for years, watching how he did things technically that no one had ever tried before -- such as modifying a Hulcher to produce beautiful pictures of runners with colors streaking from behind them as they ran. John did this at the Olympic trials in Eugene, Or. and believe it or not, he put up a black background and lights on a curve and did this very stylized illustration during an actual competition. The pictures were beautiful.

We got along wonderfully at Montreal and it was so much fun working with him -- which would be capped each day with a late dinner and great conversation. Needless to say, we did find some of the great French restaurants of Montreal. When it was finished, we did a book of our pictures that was funded by Nikon which made a good remembrance of such a nice and productive time.

We shared many assignments for Life, Time and SI in the years before his retirement and all were wonderful and enjoyable times, again with hard work coupled with great after-hours social times. But nothing compares with those three weeks doing the Olympics.

John was the ultimate sports photographer. And certainly one of the finest persons I have ever known.


(Rich Clarkson also had this to say about Zimmerman in The Christian Science Monitor in December of 2000)

"To excel as a photographer requires natural ability, inquisitiveness, charm, persuasiveness. The last element is intensity. The best all-time sports photographers, in my view, are George Silk, John Zimmerman, Walter Iooss Jr., and Neil Leifer."

Related Links:
Photographing Sports: Capturing the Excitement of People in Action

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