Written By: Ben Cosgrove
Some photographers become known for their mastery of a specialized topic, but John Dominis had the enviable ability to see and to capture anything.
Born in Los Angeles in 1921, Dominis was majoring in cinematography at USC when he left school in 1943 to enlist in the Air Force. After the war, he freelanced as a photographer for a number of national publications, including LIFE, and was put on staff in 1950 when he volunteered to cover the Korean War.
His 1965 photograph of Mickey Mantle tossing his helmet in disgust after a terrible at-bat is one of the most eloquent pictures ever made of a great athlete in decline and just to keep everyone guessing John Dominis also made some of the most memorable images of food ever to grace the pages of LIFE.
“The great thing about working with LIFE,” 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.”
Dominis was remarkably candid about his work, and no more so than when discussing how he managed to make one of the most famous, and controversial, shots of his career: the bristling-with-energy picture of a leopard and a baboon facing off in what one immediately imagines rightly, as it turns out is a fight to the death.
In John Loengard’s terrific 1998 book, LIFE Photographers: What They Saw, Dominis says of that photo:
I certainly wasn’t a cat expert, but I could hire people who knew things. They’d lined up a hunter in Botswana, who was a hunter for zoos. He had caught a leopard, and he put the leopard in the back of the truck, and we went out into the desert. He would release the leopard, and most of the time the leopard would chase the baboons and they would run off and climb trees. I had photographed all this. But for some reason one baboon . . . turned and faced the leopard, and the leopard killed it. We didn’t know that this was going to happen. I just turned on the camera motor, and I got this terrific shot of this confrontation.
There was a different feeling about that in the 1960s. We were always setting up pictures. . . . But now there are many, many more competent photographers doing this stuff over long periods of time four or five years if a scientist is on a big study. . . . No one was working that way then. I felt that my job was to get the pictures. . . . We shot a gazelle and put it in a tree and waited for a cat to come. I didn’t feel bad about it at all. It sounds terrible now, I know, and maybe my attitude would be different now. . . . I’ve been criticized a lot. But to me, I had to do what I did.
His encounters with humans were (usually) less fraught, but always involved the same degree of preparation. Of his remarkable series of photos of Steve McQueen, and how he got the notoriously private and solitary actor to relax with a photographer around, Dominis told LIFE.com:
When I was living in Hong Kong I had a sports car and I raced it. And I knew that McQueen had a racing car. I rented one anticipating that we might do something with them. He was in a motorcycle race out in the desert, so I went out there in my car and met him, and I say, ‘You wanna try my car?’ We went pretty fast I mean, as fast as you can safely go without getting arrested and we’d ride and then stop and trade cars. He liked that, and I knew he liked it. I guess that was the first thing that softened him.
Then there’s Woodstock, an event that opened the eyes of a man who’d seen everything:
“I really had a great time,” Dominis told LIFE.com, decades after the fact. “I was much older than those kids, but I felt like I was their age. They smiled at me, offered me pot. . . . You didn’t expect to see a bunch of kids so nice; you’d think they’d be uninviting to an older person. But no they were just great!
“I worked at LIFE for 25 years, and worked everywhere and saw everything, and I’ve told people every year since the Woodstock festival that it was one of the greatest events I ever covered.”
Dominis became photo editor of People magazine in the mid-1970s and was an editor at Sports Illustrated for a few years, as well (1978 – 1982). But it was his work for LIFE in the 1950s, ’60s and into the early ’70s that not only defined his peripatetic career, but produced some of the most memorable and moving images of the 20th century. He died on Dec. 30, 2013, at his home in New York City, at the age of 92.
Liz Ronk edited this gallery for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter at @LizabethRonk.