John Dominis, Life Magazine Photographer

June 27, 1921- Dec. 30, 2013
John Dominis, Life Magazine Photographer - June 27, 1921- Dec. 30, 2013

       “The great thing about working with Life magazine,” John Dominis once said, “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. It was like having a grant, a Guggenheim grant, but permanently.”

       Mr. Dominis, a star photographer for Life, the weekly picture magazine that was a household word in America for much of the last century, died at his Manhattan apartment on Dec. 30, 2013, at the age of 92, a year after undergoing emergency bypass surgery. He had had a house on Jackson Street in East Hampton as well, until about three years ago.

       His peripatetic career began soon after the end of World War II, when, having left his filmmaking studies at the University of Southern California to join the Army Air Force as a combat photographer, he found himself in Japan with little more than his camera and a “salvaged” Army Jeep. (No one was keeping much track of war materiel at that point, he told The Star in a 1999 interview.) Crisscrossing Southeast Asia, he freelanced for a number of national publications until 1950, when Life hired him full-time after he volunteered to cover the Korean War.

       Over the next two decades Mr. Dominis worked all over the world. Among his subjects were celebrities (Frank Sinatra, Steve McQueen), athletes (a 1965 shot of an aging Mickey Mantle throwing down his helmet in fury after striking out is acclaimed on life.com as “one of the most eloquent pictures ever made of a great athlete in decline”); ballet dancers, all three Kennedy brothers at the outset of their political careers; Woodstock, Vietnam, and “The Big Cats of Africa,” which took almost a year’s work and was published as a three-part series.

        Like the photo that was perhaps his most famous of all — of two American medal winners on the podium at the 1968 Olympics, raising their fists in the Black Panther salute as the National Anthem was playing — the Big Cats made the cover of the magazine. So did his pictures of President Kennedy’s trip to Berlin in 1963, President Nixon’s visit to China in 1972, and many, many others.

       In 1975, with Life nearing the end of its run, Mr. Dominis was named picture editor of People magazine. He later held the same position at Sports Illustrated before leaving to freelance. He specialized in food photography, including a series of coffee-table cookbooks such as “Foods of Tuscany” that were published by Time-Life, and in the process became no mean cook himself.

       John Dominis was born in Los Angeles on June 27, 1921, to Paul Dominis and the former Mamie Ostoja, immigrants from Croatia. During his years at Fremont High School he took up surfing and became one of the earliest experts at the sport outside Hawaii. For much of his life he continued to surf when and where opportunity allowed. His name is engraved on a bronze plaque along the Surfer’s Walk of Fame pier in Hermosa Beach, Calif.

       An all-round athlete, he was good enough at football to play for U.S.C. in a Rose Bowl game, and he made yearly trips out west to ski with friends until well into his 80s. As he grew older and began spending more time here, he took up golf. He played at the South Fork Country Club in Amagansett, where he was a member, and at Montauk Downs, often in the company of his friend Irving Hirschberg.

       Mr. Dominis leaves three children, Dori Dominis Beer of San Francisco, Paul Dominis of Sonoma, Calif., and Greg Dominis of Benicia, Calif. Seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild survive as well. His wife, the former Frances Clausen, died in a car accident in 1974. 

       In East Hampton his companion was Anne Hollister, a former Time-Life researcher whom he had met at Woodstock. In Manhattan Mr. Dominis lived with his partner of three decades, Evelyn Floret, a sculptor, who was with him for the last year of his life and when he died.