After an Air Force tour in Japan, John Dominis (1921-2013) wanted to remain in that country and work. Freelance work was illegal there in 1946, but his photographer colleagues helped him stay and get his start. He would return many times to Asia to cover wars. Back home, he shot sports (he had played end for USC in the 1944 Rose Bowl), politics, celebrities, even food. He spent three months trailing Sinatra to witness him in his element, among swank and boozy stars.
That experience of tracking a subject helped the stalwart Dominis on his famous “The Great Cats of Africa.” The series won him an award even as he was still in the bush—and even though he orchestrated his famous baboon-leopard encounter (the feline was a rental dropped in among the simians)—Dominis had never suggested otherwise. “Frankly, it was set up,” he said. “In those days we were not against setting up some pictures that were impossible to get any other way.”
On the occasion of Sinatra’s soth birthday, Dominis went to Florida, where he was performing. Dominis ended up spending three months with him, resulting in an unrivaled set of images of the entertainer.
“Steve McQueen was really a nice guy, but he’s another of the ones who didn’t really want to have even one picture taken, even though he’d agreed to the story… I had done quite a lot of sports-car racing when I lived in Hong Kong, so for fun I rented a Jaguar. I knew he had a Jaguar, and I thought it would help a little bit… He drove my car and I drove his. I started shooting a few pictures. I didn’t hang around him a long time, maybe three weeks, and finally he relaxed.”
This photo is from LIFE’S Great Dinners series, which Dominis worked on with editor Eleanor Graves. “We didn’t want our pictures to look like ones in all the food and women’s magazines,” says Dominis. “I got these slivered almonds, and put this trout in there with a fishing line on it… The trout was soft from being cooked and it just fell apart. Finally, I cooked the trout on one side to make it the proper color, and then I put the line in and put it in the freezer. When it was stiff and firm, we put it in the almonds and my assistant pulled it out.”
—Adapted from The Great LIFE Photographers