Out of the Past: John G. Zimmerman

By Jill Waterman

Multiple exposure of gymnast Kurt Thomas on the parallel bars from 1979.

Portrait © Tony Triolo / Sports Illustrated

Long before remote camera technology was a glimmer on the horizon of digital imaging, legendary photographer John G. Zimmerman assembled his own lighting and shutter speed contraptions to perfect innovative gear for capturing the high drama and split-second action of sports. His daring camera placements and electronic flash techniques, combined with a pioneering use of remote control, motor-drive sequences and unique shutter designs revolutionized sports photography and influenced a generation of photographers and sports enthusiasts alike.

Zimmerman, a southern California native, learned photography from his father, a movie industry gaffer, at an early age. After serving in the Navy during World War II and working as a Time-Life lab technician, in 1956 he became one of the first staff photographers at the newly minted Sports Illustrated magazine. Over the next four decades his dynamic imagery would grace more than 100 Sports Illustrated covers, among many other uses.

Some of Zimmerman’s most memorable pictures introduced audiences to such undiscovered perspectives as from above the rim of a basketball hoop and the insides of a hockey net, while other scenes wowed the public with the captivating beauty of supermodels featured in SI’s annual Swimsuit issue.

Wilt Chamberlain dunks a basket for the Philadelphia Warriors in 1961, shot with a camera placed on the backboard and controlled remotely. © John G. Zimmerman

In addition to editorial work, during the 1970’s Zimmerman applied his precise vision and innovative techniques to commercial photography, shooting campaigns for a wide range of major advertising and corporate clients. Yet he continued to freelance for Sports Illustrated and other magazines until his retirement in 1991.

After Zimmerman’s passing in August 2002, his son Darryl contributed the following to an online tribute on Sportshooter.com. “My father never settled comfortably in one job, as he was always looking for a challenge. He left Sports Illustrated after only six or seven years to pursue other types of photography with Time/Life Inc. For instance, he did architectural photography and took it as far as he could, then moved on. I remember my father telling me that ‘if you want to like your boss, you should work for yourself.’”

Today, the Zimmerman archive is part of the American Photographers Archive Group (APAG), and is managed by his daughter Linda and son Greg. To introduce this work to a broader audience and promote fine art sales, Zimmerman’s family launched a new Web site in January 2014. They are currently seeking to partner with an academic institution with a strong interest in photography for the archive’s first posthumous exhibition. For further details, visit the Zimmerman archive online here.



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