Don’t let his grandfatherly demeanor under a lustrous thick head of white hair fool you. At age 86 and one of the last bastions of North American street photographers known as “humanists”, George S. Zimbel is one tough cookie. A champion of the Everyman (and woman,) his lens has captured burlesque queens, truckers and presidents, movie stars and kids just playing in the street, with the same unpretentious reverence that once elevated every day mediocrity to an art form.
“You don’t have to mess around with reality to get an interesting picture,” says Zimbel, Skyping with his son, doc director, writer and founder of the band, Manteca, Matt Zimbel, from their hometown of Montreal, Canada. He is alluding to the current selfie generation’s obsession with posting “digital diarrhea” in which photographers shoot thousands of images without focusing or caring.
George is the subject of Zimbelism a sweet but unsentimental film about a bygone era, written and directed by Gemini Award winner, Matt Zimbel and Jean François Gratton. It’s opening at the 2016 Hot Docs Festival, North America’s largest documentary film festival running in Toronto April 28th to May 8th.
Zimbel senior is still working in black and white after 72 years shooting with two of his original Leicas, developing his own photos in his studio darkroom and doing his dancing hands incantation during developing “texture, texture, texture”, then printing on vintage enlargers.
Part of the international “humanist” photography movement that began in the 30s to the 60’s, with photographers like Edward Steichen (“he gave me a few tips,” Zimbel laughs,) Willy Ronis, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Alexey Brodovitch, Berenice Abbott and John Ebstel, they focused their work on everyday people and mundane activities.
“I asked George how he wanted to approach the making of the documentary and he suggested a road trip visiting places that were important to him throughout his career,” Matt explains.
Zimbelism documents George Zimbel’s life, from his birth in 1929 in Woburn, Massachusetts, to studying at Columbia University and recounting his time in the 50s at the legendary Photo League in New York City. He shares his trials and tribulations to establish himself as a freelance photographer in a very competitive industry, injecting humorous anecdotes about his subjects, meeting his wife, Elaine and starting a family. In protest of the Vietnam War, the Zimbels moved to a farm on Prince Edward Island, Canada then eventually to Montreal. And seen as a whole, Zimbelism is also a touching tribute by a son to his aging father.
One shudders thinking back to the lack of security in the 40s, 50s and 60’s and almost unrestricted access Zimbel had to politicians like Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Jacqueline Kennedy, Richard Nixon and celebrities, Leonard Bernstein and Mickey Rooney amongst many others. His David and Goliath battle with his beloved New York Times over proprietary rights should be a precedent in sheer fortitude for all freelancers!
But it’s Zimbel’s photographic encounter with Marilyn Monroe on the night of September 11th, 1954, that is now recognized as one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th Century. Zimbel was just twenty-five-years-old at the time.
You know the shot: Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate with her dress swirling up to show her panties, for a publicity shoot for the film, the Seven-Year Itch, directed by Billy Wilder. When I suggest that he might have been the first ever paparazzi, without realizing it, George and Matt both chime in together “oh no, just the opposite.” That’s because unlike the contrived stakeouts of today’s celebrity stalkers, Zimbel is the product of an entirely different era and mentality.
As he explains in Zimbelism: “An older photographer tossed me a press pass at the last minute, so I went.”
“I am more of a determined photographer than a pushy photographer but that night I did something atypical. I started to shoot as the filming commenced. (Strictly forbidden!) There was enough street noise to cover the discrete click of the Leica shutter, but someone obviously didn’t like what I was doing and I was removed from the press photography area and escorted behind the police lines by two of New York’s finest. I used the new viewpoint and kept shooting from there. I remember when all action stopped as two men walked across the set. It was Joe Dimaggio, (Marilyn’s) husband and Walter Winchell, the Broadway columnist. Dimaggio was furious about the scene (remember it was 1954.) Every publication that could find an excuse to run photos of that event did so. And here is my personal mystery – I decided not to throw my shoot into the editorial pot.”
I ask George bluntly, “Why did you do that? Didn’t you kick yourself afterwards? ”
“We all have our priorities,” he says without regret, “and I was working on a photo essay on Irish Americans that had to be completed first. You know we had to fight just to be paid $100. Of course I checked the Marilyn negatives first and then I filed them away unprinted and unpublished. They even survived a fire in my darkroom in 1966 and my move to Canada in 1971.”
Amazingly, the Monroe photographs weren’t shown until over 20 years later, in Zimbel’s solo exhibition in 1976 at Confederation Centre of the Arts, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The full set was shown for the first time in 1982 at Galerie Art 45 in Montreal.
As Zimbel reminisces, “In January 2000 I had a retrospective in Valencia Spain and my Marilyns were exhibited on the walls of Sala Muralla, a gallery fashioned from an ancient archeological site at Institut Valencia d’Art Modern where they shared space with an ancient plaque of a Roman goddess. I felt it was a homecoming for her image.”
Zimbel’s work has been published in the New York Times, Look and Life magazines, and has been hung in New York’s MOMA and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography. PBS American Masters Series “Marilyn Monroe – Still Life” featured an interview with Zimbel and many of his photographs.
In 2015, Zimbel published a retrospective book of photographs, MOMENTO and was the subject of an Exhibition, George S. Zimbel A Humanist Photographer, at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
“We get such a kick out of seeing audience reactions to Zimbelism,” laughs Matt. “Especially when they see George. ‘Is that him? Is he really still alive?’ they ask. ” (George is grinning as Matt relates the irony.)
“To me these photographs are a document of the age of innocence – my own.”
TOP PHOTO: Marilyn Monroe standing over a subway grate with her dress swirling up to show her panties, posing for a publicity shoot for the film, the Seven-Year Itch, 1954. Photo: “The Flower” by George S. Zimbel