Life captured in a second
An interview with the celebrated humanist photographer George S. Zimbel
By Carmen J. Michaud
Photography by James St Laurent
A friend of mine had a back injury and asked if I might replace her for a few weeks as a receptionist for two dentists. She was unable to sit or stand for extended periods. This was not my usual line of work but it meant some pay and an opportunity to meet new people. After a few hours training, Francie left me to her recovery. She was reachable by telephone for any questions I might have.
One day as I was calling to confirm appointments for the following day. I came to the name “George Zimbel”. I wondered if it might be the same George Zimbel whose exhibit at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts I had seen a few months prior.
Mr. Zimbel’s works are familiar to many. There is the famous photograph of Marilyn Monroe taken while she was filming The Seven Year Itch. You know the one. Her skirt lifted by the wind coming from a subway grate. One with a look of delight on her face. Another pensive. Black and white.
There’s the photo of the young Kennedys, Jackie and Jack, smiling and waving from a convertible in New York City.
There are photos of Leonard Bernstein, Richard Nixon and Dwight Eisenhower, Helen Keller, a series on Harry Truman, and Queen Elizabeth on tour.
And then there are the photos of people. Everyday people. People you see in the street, in a bar, on a bus. The glamorous woman hunched at a bar smoking a cigarette. The defiant child with his fists at the ready. Workmen clowning around on a break. Life captured in a second.
A few minutes before the appointment, George Zimbel arrived at the open door of the office. Wearing a thick vest, over a dark sweater and, on his head, a casquette, he was carrying a shillelagh. He sat down. I came from behind the desk and sat beside him.
“I’m a big fan!”
“Thank you!” With a big smile.
During the few weeks at that office, I saw Mr. Zimbel a few more times and met his wife, writer, psychotherapist, blogger Elaine Sernovitz Zimbel. She was a force in her own right.
Francie invited me to join her for the Montreal showing of the documentary Zimbelism. The doc was directed by George’s son, Matt Zimbel, and Jean Francois Gratton. It was shown at the McCord Museum.
The documentary is a fascinating look at this humanist photographer. This documentary photographer. He speaks of his inspiration and his history. We see the very young photographer, his growing family. There are terrific moments with Elaine. Mostly smiling. And there is a thread regarding the fight artists must wage to protect their rights to images they create.
I saw Mr Zimbel on a few more occasions and he was kind to offer a print of his for a charitable auction on which I was working.
His photographs are one of a kind. They show a true interest in beings… and a portrayal that is always gentle.
Mr Zimbel, by the late 60s your work was appearing in major magazines and newspapers, notably the New York Times and Look. Most young artists hungry to be known, leave the farm and go to the big city. You and your family left New York (albeit a home in the country just outside the city) to live on a farm… in Canada. What was the impetus for such a move?
The first step was just outside New York and I was reticent to move out of the city. Afraid to miss an assignment. But Elaine convinced me. Our last place in the US was in Putnam County, Peekskill, where we had twenty-odd acres. We had our three sons and our chosen daughter. And then, in 1971, we moved to PEI.
And why Prince Edward Island?
Elaine and I were on vacation there when we saw a piece of land, a farm, on the south shore of the island and we bought it. (An aside from Matt, “The lure of an island in the summer… then comes winter…”)
My wife and I have four children and we saw the direction that the world was going in. Getting more and more commercialized. I was really pissed off about the Vietnam War. I was politically very upset.
We had the land and we loved the ocean. It was crazy. Everyone said we were crazy. “You’re going to farm?” It was true. But people helped us and we farmed! We had a good ten years.
And, from what I’ve read, you were a working farm, not simply a country house?
We were completely implicated in the farm and the community. Matt raised pigs, Andy and Ike were great with the cattle, and Jodi collected the eggs from the hen house. All of them drove the tractor, lifted hay bales, got an education of sorts, and thrived on the mostly home-produced food. I milked the cow and did almost everything else a farmer has to do in real life, taking time out to photograph significant people and events. Elaine made butter, cottage cheese, and yogurt, and tended the garden. She sometimes wrote articles, founded the P.E.I. Psychodrama and Growth Centre and served as its executive director running a program funded by the Non-Medical Use of Drugs Directorate of the National Department of Health.
While living in PEI you were engaged to photograph Queen Elizabeth II, in 1973, on her visit to mark the entry of PEI into the Confederation. What were your impressions of the Queen?
She was like a queen. She was regal.
You had, in 1954, been given a press pass to take photographs of Marilyn Monroe while she was shooting The Seven year Itch but you did not publish or show these photos until the 70s. Why did you choose The Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown in 1976 to show these photos that have become iconic?
I don’t do celebrity pictures but I look at the shoot and think, Yea, I’m proud of it. I think it was well done and it was a story too. Billy Wilder was there, and Joe DiMaggio… and Walter Winchell. So I had the story. I put the negatives away. I didn’t try to get them published. I don’t know why.
The curator of the gallery in Charlottetown, Moncrieff Williamson, was mounting the first retrospective of my work… mes oeuvres. These were included and the first time they were exhibited… that’s when I started to feel what was there.
‘In 1967 when you had the World’s Fair I met a woman and she was an architect and she said, “Montreal is the artistic soul of Canada”. And I never forgot that.’
George S. Zimbel
And when did you decide to move back to the city? And why choose Montreal? We know Elaine had studied in France and so had knowledge of French but you were not deterred.
In late 1980, Elaine and I, with our children having dispersed into other parts of Canada, were ready to leave P.E.I. We looked around for an urban centre. We could have gone anywhere but there was only one place we wanted to go and that was Montreal.
In 1967 when you had the World’s Fair I met a woman and she was an architect and she said, “Montreal is the artistic soul of Canada”. And I never forgot that.
And when I started showing my work in Montreal there was a buzz happening and great connections were forged with galleries.
Do you find Montrealers open to being photographed in their day to day living?
Nope! I had a woman yell at me in the metro, “Why are you taking my picture? I’m going to call the police”. People are photographed and filmed all day by “authorities”. In the metro, in the banks. No one thinks about it.
Your work has been largely taking photos of people. Prior to camera phones and posting on social media, people didn’t really pay attention.
Nobody was threatened by the 35mm camera. I guess they suspected that the pictures wouldn’t come out. You could move in close and the worst that would happen is someone would smile and say, “What are you doing?” “I’m taking your picture.” And the person would say, “Oh, that’s nice.”
In the last few decades you have had numerous exhibits of your works shown around the world. What is it about your photographs that you think connects people of various geography, and ethnicity?
I think they know I want them to be interested in the content. The fact that I’m picking that photograph means I want to share it. I want to share. I believe in sharing.
Whether they’re contemplative or joking around or working hard or just crossing the street, George has a great eye for revealing gesture.
Anne Tucker, Founding Curator of the Department of Photography, Museum of Fine Arts Houston
As a kid I took a lot of photos of people around me. I had an Agfa that my dad had bought. There was a thrill in the split second of deciding if this was worth it. Twenty-four or thirty-six shots is limiting. There was an excitement to getting the photos printed and seeing what you had. In this day of digital and smart phones, do you find people are losing the eye for a good shot? Too much is left to the mass of product and to Photoshop?
The moment is so important and the moment is what makes photographic art different from other arts. There’s nothing else like that! One frame. The digital approach I call “digital diarrhea”. When you have 100,000 images, are you going to find the image? That one image? Maybe you will, maybe you won’t. Maybe your head will break open. Be present. You have to be present.
And have “an eye”?
You have to have a great eye. That’s what you’re born with or you develop it. It doesn’t matter what camera you use, what anything you use. You have to have a great eye!
In the doc Zimbelism there is a running thread of your exasperation with lawyers for the New York Times and their possession (and use) of your work. Do you have advice for artists, in this age of easy digital reproduction, on how to protect their work?
Power is the key to stealing what’s called intellectual property. It is the word “intellectual” that makes it OK to steal. It is not, after all, like stealing from a bank or from a house. “Get real”, they say, “This is business. We’re only dealing with words or pictures, the stuff you love to produce. You are an artist!”
As shown in the film, it was a long battle to retrieve my print. My rights. I persisted. After thirty-nine years, the print of the Kennedys is back where it belongs. With me.
‘My work begins with the recording of an image, but it is not finished until I have made a fine print. That is my photograph.”
‘A lot goes into a finished documentary photograph: a very personal view of life, a knowledge of technique, and of course, information. It is the information that grabs the viewer, but it is the photographer’s art that holds them.’
George S. Zimbel
And we finish with the Proustian questionnaire…
What is your idea of perfect happiness?
The miraculous return of Elaine
What do you consider the most overrated virtue?
On what occasion do you lie?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
Keep the faith, baby.
Who is your hero of fiction?
Captain John Yossarian – Catch 22
What is the quality you most like in a man?
What is the quality you most like in a woman?
When and where were you happiest?
In our home built in 1732 in Peekskill, NY.
Which talent would you most like to have?
What is your most marked characteristic?
My left eye.
What or who is the greatest love of your life?
Images of George S. Zimbel by James St Laurent
Carmen J. Michaud likes to write (and paint) and is majoring in Curiosity.
James St Laurent – My work is all about the idea – to communicate through images that convey an emotive context and engage the viewer by presenting a visual paradox. Different types of subjects and genres require different approaches, but the end result is still a compelling image that captures your attention. Despite having had a camera early on, I found myself in a career as a stage set and lighting designer, then accidentally stumbled and fell back into photography. Since then I have shot a variety of genres, ranging from fashion to travel to portraits to concerts, and exhibited in galleries in both group and solo shows. There are photographs everywhere – the problem is to find the interesting images or those that no one else sees. The obvious is easy – the unique takes a little more time. jamesstlaurent.com