John Zimmerman, 74; Noted Photographer


John G. Zimmerman, a photographer who broke ground in sports photojournalism with innovative techniques as a staff member of a then-fledgling publication called Sports Illustrated, has died. He was 74.

Zimmerman, a native of Los Angeles, died Aug. 3 of complications from lymphoma in Pebble Beach, where he had lived since the early 1990s.

Considered a wizard with specialty cameras, camera angles, strobe lighting and shutter design, Zimmerman was among the first to put a remote-controlled camera inside a hockey net to show the fierce action around the goal, behind a basketball net to show the intensity of Wilt Chamberlin and underwater to catch the power and grace of great divers and swimmers. While these techniques may seem familiar today in the world of television minicams and constant sports coverage, they were new and exciting when Zimmerman perfected them more than 40 years ago.

But Zimmerman was more than just a technical genius. He was an excellent sports action and portrait photographer. Over the years, he shot 107 covers for the magazine, including action shots, portraiture of stars like Dodger pitcher Sandy Koufax and several swimsuit issues, working with models Christie Brinkley, Elle MacPherson and Carol Alt.


“He basically was the godfather of sports photography at Sports Illustrated,” said Steve Fine, the current director of photography at the magazine. “He took shots from angles that had never been seen and pioneered techniques that had never been used--including slow shutter speeds, blurs--and produced interesting studies of motion.”

Born in Pacoima, Zimmerman was the son of a gaffer at MGM who began teaching his son photography at an early age.

Zimmerman attended Fremont High School and came under the tutelage of C.A. Bach, whose three-year photography course was considered one of the best vocational programs in the country.

Other Fremont alums would recall that Bach worked like a photo editor, sending his students out on assignments that included everything from police calls to fashion shoots. Photographs by Bach’s students were picked up by wire services and appeared in national magazines like Life.


Several of his students went on to make names for themselves as photographers for some of the leading magazines in the country. Those names would include John Dominis, Hank Walker and Zimmerman.

Zimmerman served in the Navy during World War II. After the war, he was eventually hired as a lab technician at the Time-Life office in Washington. He was later given photographic assignments and was a working photographer when he was hired by Sports Illustrated in 1956, one of just two staff photographers.

“In the 1950s and ‘60s, sports photography was a cutthroat business,” said documentary filmmaker Neil Leifer, also a well-known photographer who worked with Zimmerman at Sports Illustrated. “John Zimmerman was the biggest star and the biggest exception to the rule. He was always available with advice. I don’t know if there was a greater all-around photographer.”

One of Zimmerman’s memorable photographs was taken in 1980 for Sports Illustrated, which reprinted it this week along with several pages of Zimmerman’s other photographs in a tribute. It shows diver Jenni Chandler completing her dive and swimming submerged toward the camera. To accomplish this, Zimmerman used a partially submerged camera, fired four strobes during her dive while leaving the shutter open, then refocused after her entry and fired another strobe for the underwater image.


Zimmerman left the Sports Illustrated staff in the early 1960s to pursue his photography career as a freelance shooter. He covered 10 Olympic Games for Time, Life and Sports Illustrated. His work also showed up in the Saturday Evening Post, and he built a lucrative commercial business with clients that included Ford Motor Co.

He continued to contribute frequently to Sports Illustrated into the 1980s. He retired from photography in 1992 when he moved to the Monterey Peninsula.

Survivors include his wife, Delores; three children, Darryl, Greg and Linda; a sister Molly Bishop and a brother Ed Zimmerman.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests that donations be made to the American Cancer Society.