John Dominis

Steve McQueen & Niele Adams, Big Sur, California

Steve McQueen & Niele Adams, Big Sur, California

Mr. Dominis was a star among a stable of star photographers at Life, the nation’s most popular picture magazine, from 1950 until it ended weekly issues, in 1972. He was a Life magazine photographer who was known for capturing celebrities, wild animals and presidents at their unguarded best, and who was caught off guard himself while taking his most famous picture — of two American medal winners raising black-gloved fists at the 1968 Olympics.

Ingratiating, self-effacing and ruggedly handsome, he was often assigned to photograph people who preferred not to be photographed. He spent a month in 1963 with the actor Steve McQueen (nearly feral in his aversion to publicity), who was not yet the superstar he became. He persuaded Frank Sinatra to indulge him for three months in 1965 while he went inside his prickly circle of friends, family, drivers and handlers to photograph his life.

It was not charm, though, but the reflexes of a professional photographer that helped Mr. Dominis produce his most enduring image.

On Oct. 16, 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos ascended the Olympic podium in Mexico City to receive medals for finishing first (Mr. Smith) and third (Mr. Carlos) in the men’s 200-meter dash — along with the Australian sprinter Peter Norman, the silver medalist — Mr. Dominis was one of the few photographers who happened to be in the media pen 20 feet away watching and, he said, “expecting a normal ceremony.”

After the athletes had received their medals and “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, Mr. Dominis was looking through his camera lens when Mr. Smith and Mr. Carlos, bowing their heads, each raised a gloved fist in a black power salute, to protest America’s racism.

“I didn’t think it was a big news event,” Mr. Dominis told Smithsonian magazine in 2008. “I hardly noticed what was happening when I was shooting.” The New York Times reported that the event “actually passed without much general notice in the packed Olympic Stadium.”

Mr. Dominis later dismissed his black-and-white picture as “not much of a photograph.” But it made the protest an indelible part of the iconography of the tumultuous 1960s.

John Frank Michael Dominis was born in Los Angeles on June 27, 1921, the youngest of four children. Mr. Dominis studied filmmaking at the University of Southern California and served in the Army as a combat photographer in Japan during World War II.

After covering the Korean War for Life, he traveled widely on assignments in Asia and Europe; covered President John F. Kennedy’s 1963 trip to Berlin and President Richard M. Nixon’s 1972 trip to China; and photographed the Woodstock music festival and five Olympics.

He spent many months in Africa for a 1966 Life feature “The Great Cats of Africa” and later published several books of additional photos from the tour.