John Dominis, Life magazine photographer, dies at 92

John Dominis, a photographer for Life magazine who took memorable pictures of Frank Sinatra and Steve McQueen, as well as an iconic 1965 shot of Mickey Mantle tossing away his helmet after a bad turn at bat, died Dec. 30 at his home in New York. He was 92.

The cause was cardiopulmonary arrest, according to his companion, Evelyn Floret. He had a major heart attack last year.

(LIFE & ©Time Inc.) - Life magazine photographer John Dominis.

**CORRECTS LAST NAME TO ROPER ** ** ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY, JUNE 4 **Pastor Fred Phelps, right, holds his great-granddaughter, Zion Phelps-Roper, as he sings happy birthday to family members during a gathering at the Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan. April 9, 2006. Phelps and his tight-knit congregation travel the country preaching damnation to a nation of sinners. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

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If Mr. Dominis had a specialty, it was that he was a supreme generalist. In addition to his classic image of a frustrated Mantle, Mr. Dominis captured U.S. sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in defiance on the podium at the 1968 Olympic Games.

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 food.

Both Sinatra and McQueen could be touchy with photographers, but he 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.

Not having a specialty could reduce the chance of a photographer becoming a household name. But Ralph Graves, the last editor of the weekly edition of Life, which shut down in 1972, said Mr. Dominis’s 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, I would choose John Dominis,” Graves wrote in his 2010 book “The Life I Led.” “He was neither as famous as others nor as outstanding in this field or that field. But he could shoot everything.”

John Dominis was born June 27, 1921, in Los Angeles. He traced his interest in photography to Fremont High School, where he studied with C.A. Bach. Several of Bach’s students went on to become Life photographers.

Mr. Dominis went on to the University of Southern California, where he studied cinematography and played football. He left college before graduating and joined the Army Air Forces.

In 1946, after his military stint, Mr. Dominis stayed in Japan, where he had been stationed, and picked up freelance photo assignments from the Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s and the pinnacle of popular photojournalism magazines, Life. When he 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 Mr. Dominis arrived in Los Angeles, McQueen had fled to the Mojave Desert for a motorcycle race.

Mr. 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, Mr. Dominis was able to hang out with McQueen for more than two weeks, taking pictures of him in a variety of situations, even in the nude.

With Sinatra, Mr. Dominis told the Santa Fe New Mexican, “I spent about a week without even carrying a camera.”

During the 1965 assignment, 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.

Another of Mr. Dominis’s most famous photos was a 1966 action shot of a leopard in Africa about to pounce on a baboon. The photographer later said the photo was, in part, a setup. He had hired a hunter who released a captured leopard in the area where there were baboons, most of which scattered.

But one baboon did not, Mr. Dominis wrote in the 1998 book “Life Photographers: What They Saw.” “It turned and faced the leopard, and the leopard killed it.”

He said that setting up pictures was more common in the 1960s. “It sounds terrible now, I know,” he said, “and maybe my attitude would be different now.”

In 1975, Mr. Dominis became picture editor at People magazine and held the same position at Sports Illustrated from 1978 until 1982. Floret said he then returned to freelancing and took pictures for food books.

Mr. Dominis’s first wife, Frances Clausen, died in a car accident in 1974. A brief second marriage to Anne Hollister ended in divorce.

In addition to Floret, survivors include three children, seven grandchildren and a great-grandchild.

— Los Angeles Times

 
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