George S. Zimbel at Stephen Bulger

by Gary Michael Dault. The Globe & Mail, Toronto

As published on Saturday, January 4, 2003 - Print Edition, Page R8

This bracing survey exhibition of documentary photographs by veteran septuagenarian photographer George S. Zimbel provides a deeply satisfying kind of photographic pleasure.

Here are the fruits of a wise, alert, compassionate sensibility at large in the world, revelling in the real, whether that reality stretches from the wild shores of mainstream political spectacle (John F. Kennedy and Jackie waving gleefully from an open convertible in 1960, three years before the fatal motorcade, for example) or comes to rest on shrewdly observed moments, photographic glances that reveal much in the moment (in Dance at the U.N., 1955, for example, where a short, genial, bearded man dancing with a tall, pinched, haughty matron says everything that needs to be said about diplomacy and grace under pressure in general).

Zimbel himself is a fascinating character. Born in Woburn, Mass., in 1929, he sold his first photo to Life magazine (for $25) while still a student. He then worked as a freelance photographer for The New York Times and a host of important publications, eventually immersing himself in a decade-long photographic project about American politics.

In protest against the Vietnam War, Zimbel and his family moved to Prince Edward Island in 1970 and, in 1980, to Montreal, where he still resides.

The Bulger Gallery exhibition is a rare opportunity to acquire some sense of Zimbel's overall achievement -- which is a considerable one. His range is astonishing. There are the admittedly "big" pictures of larger-than-life people -- Marilyn Monroe, for example. And then there are his apparently offhand but deftly wrought, atmospherically rich street photographs, which is where, in my estimation, Zimbel comes into his own. Try to find a photograph richer with smoky, noisy, light-glinting, crystal-clinking, silverware-rattling, palm-punctuated urban sophistication than his L'Express, Montreal, 1968 (where he becomes the Brassai of Montreal) or a photographic moment more sultry and cinematic than his Woman at the Bar, Bourbon Street, New Orleans, 1955. These photographs are spots of time. And they bring us engagingly, bracingly close to the meaning of our lives as we live them. Need any artist do more?