At 91, the American-Canadian humanist photographer George S. Zimbel is one of the last elders of photography faithful to the legacy of the Photo League, who in the fifties imbued their pictures with a personal commitment towards the people and the social landscapes they documented. Zimbel’s work is collected by major museums internationally, he has published numerous books and in 2016 he was the subject of an award winning feature documentary on his work called “Zimbelism”.
George Zimbel was married to Elaine Sernovitz, a writer and psychotherapist since 1955. On August 4th, 2017 Elaine passed away. George put down his camera, closed his darkroom and has since retired from public life.
George and Elaine have four children: Matt, Andrew, Ike, and Jodi and nine grandchildren.
George’s collection is now managed by his children. The collection consisting of prints printed by George, negatives and colour slides is in the process of being cataloged. Cataloging of the prints has been completed. The thousands of colour slides, and hundred of thousand negatives will be an on going project.
In an era of increased manipulation of the photographic image by computer technology, Zimbel’s commitment to the “straight” photograph has become stronger. He sees the early 21st century as a period in which classic photography will have it’s last flowering.
My work begins with recording 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
1929 – George S. Zimbel born in Woburn Mass. U.S.A. to Morris Zimbel & Tillie Gruzen
1935-1947 – Attended Woburn public schools. Edited student newspaper in 7th grade & produced photographs for the first yearbook,”The Initou” in his graduation year. At age 14 he got first professional camera, a 4/5″ Speed Graphic and began photographing for a local newspaper and businesses.
1947 – Entered Columbia College of Columbia University, New York, for four years of immersion in the liberal arts. Began writing and photographing for The Columbia Daily Spectator. (IVAM p.45)
1948 – Photographed “Squirt Gun Fad” published in Life magazine. Photographed cover for LIFE spoof “LIFF” for the Columbia Jester.
1949 – Parallel to academic studies was signed as a stringer for PIX Inc., one of the first photographic agencies in the U.S. That summer studied at The Photo League with John Ebstel, learning the art of fine printing and the philosophy of the documentary photographer. (IVAM p.40) Freelanced, producing work for architectural and construction industry clients. Introduced Garry Winogrand to the Columbia Camerea Club darkroom where they formed the “Midnight to Dawn” club.
1950 – Began photographing stories and portraits for the Columbia Alumni News and industrial stories for New York Telephone Co. Used Leica for the first time to photograph Dwight Eisenhower. (IVAM p.136) Became a City Editor of The Columbia Spectator; editorial stringer for Newsweek magazine. (IVAM 96,97)
1951 – Graduated from Columbia with B.A. in Liberal Arts; was given scholarship to Alexy Brodevitch Workshop at the New School, N.Y.C. (IVAM p.16,17,41,44,101,103,107,168) Showed work to Edward Steichen of MOMA and was introduced to photographic masters by Grace Mayer, Steichen’s assistant. Photographed Harlem Clubs (IVAM p.107) Photographed Alwin Nikolai & Henry St. Settlement House Dance Company. Potographed “New York at Dawn” (IVAM p.103,101,44) Got first 35mm camera, A Nikon S1. Went on active duty with the U.S. Army in Dec. 28, 1951
1952-1953 – Assigned to 555 Combat Engineer Group as photographer where he produced a book of aerial and land based photographs of the Rhine River. While on leave, made photographs in England, France, Germany & Italy which later became his European Photographs Exhibition.(p.9,48,63) Returned to New York in May 1953 to begin his career as a freelance photographer. Did self assigned essay at Philadelphia General Hospital on the pediatrics section. (IVAM p.114,117) Begin receiving assignments from Parents Magazine, Redbook Magazine, Medical Image Magazine & New York Times Magazine & Drama page.(IVAM p.109)
Photographed Parade Magazine: “Futuristic Playground”
1954 – Began Harry S. Truman project: “A President in retirement”. (IVAM p.136-137) Began series : 2nd Generation Americans (IVAM p.112) Photographed Marilyn Monroe Seven Year Itch session in New York (IVAM p.66-79) Left for Texas to continue 2nd generation project. New York Times: New Views of New York (IVAM p.109)
1955 – Photographed Chester Bonn ranch in Fredericksburg Texas GI Couple, El Paso, Texas and then to New Orleans Louisiana to photograph “Bourbon Street 1955” (IVAM p.84-95) Married Elaine Sernovitz on Feb 3 1955 in New Orleans and returned to New York City where she continued her work as a short Storywriter and member of the Korean Reconstruction Agency at the UN and he continued freelancing. (IVAM p.108) Began photographic projects for book “Schoolhouse” with essay “Best Friends” in Woburn Mass., “A Farm Boy’s Morning” in Oconomowoc Wisc.” and children’s photographs from New York. (IVAM p.110)
1956 – Zimbel moved to Dobbs Ferry, New York. Son, Matthew J. Zimbel is born. Continued his political project (Moma: American Politicians p.34,160) & (IVAM p137,139), he photographs the Democratic convention in Chicago. Many of his political photographs were published in LOOK magazine. Photographed Helen Keller at Harvard (IVAM p.162) For Parade Magazine: “Futuristic Playground.” (IVAM p.111) Pageant Magazine: Helen Keller Cottage for Deaf-Blind Children. (IVAM p.117)
1957 – Mickey Rooney essay for LOOK County Agent Exhibition (U.S.I.A) John Peter Design (IVAM p.150-155)
1958 – Son, Andrew is born. Photographed essay on Mass. Institute of Technology for U.S.I.A. (IVAM p.156-160) Photographed Charles Eames 40 screen Moscow exhibition. Photographed self assigned essay on puppeteers Bill & Cora Baird. Began photographing industrial works for Carborundum Annual Report & additional publications. New York Times: “The Teamsters, Bronx” (IVAM p.83)
1959 – African & Arab Students exhibition (John Peter Design); Photographed Fritz Reiner & Chicago Symphony;
Photographed exhibition “Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy” (George Nelson Design). Photographed Edward R.Morrow (IVAM p.164) photographs for book: “A Builder’s Story” Reynolds Metals Company Photographed “The Phenomena of Early Childhood Development” for Ross Laboratories New York Times: Essay on Jones Beach (IVAM p.81) New York Times – “Etienne de Croux & Jean Seberg” (IVAM p.25)
1960 – Produced Child Development Series and education photographs for Monkmeyer Press Photos, a major supplier to the academic publishing market. (These black and white photographs are still published regularly in child development texts.)
Photographed John & Jacqueline Kennedy, Eisenhower & Nixon and other political figures; Photographs Nixon Kennedy TV Debate off television screen (IVAM 138-149) Photographed Norfolk & Western RR Annual Report.(IVAM p166) & “Report on the Stone Industry – Carborundum Co. (IVAM p.167) Redbook Magazine: “Tay-Sachs Dilema” (IVAM p.116); Architectural Forum: Essay on new Chase Manhattan Bank building. (IVAM p.102) Started working in inner city sites-schools, neighborhoods for EFL (IVAM p.31)
1961 -1970 – Son Ike born. 1961. Daughter Jodi born 1962, adopted 1964 (IVAM p.29,118) Xerox Annual Report, Norfolk 7 Western RR annual Report; General Railway Signal Annual Report Began photographing for Educational Facilities Laboratories of the Ford Foundation documenting innovative approaches to school architecture. Only photographer allowed to document College Board. Entrance Examinations Harry S.Truman 80th birthday portrait (IVAM p.140) EFL: Stephens College, Mo.essay
Architectural Forum: Cover, Horizon House (IVAM p.172) USIA: “Over the Rails to Grandmother’s House” Photographed Hudson Guild New York for WNDT Television (IVAM p.106) Camera 35 Magazine: The Camera as a weapon – the story of the successful fight against Con Edison Hudson River Dam project. (Text & photographs) EFL – The Bronx (IVAM p.132,133,134,135)
New York Times: Leonard Bernstein, 50 yeards old (IVAM p.165) Began teaching evening photography course at SUNY White Plains Campus EFL: Bedford Stuyvesant Brooklyn New York Times Leonard Bernstein, 50 years old (IVAM p.124-131)
Photograph Dr. J.L. Moreno psychodrama founder (IVAM p.176) Frequent trips to Canada to photograph SEF school project in Toronto, also summer visits with family (IVAM p.120) He also photographed many black and white essays for U.S. corporations, focusing his attention on the workers and their environments. This was the era before stylists, art directors and company public relations people controlled how images were produced. He photographed annual report projects for Carborundum Company, General Railway Signal, and Xerox. As with most editorial photographers of that time, he supplemented his income by advertising assignments, producing a medical products campaign for Kodak through J. Walter Thompson (the first time that Kodak had use black & white existing light photographs for a campaign). In early audio visual campaigns, he collaborated on programs for Mobil Oil Company and IBM and worked with Charles Eames’ on the forty screen presentation in color which was shown in Moscow. He wrote and photographed two exhibits for the U.S. Navy Medical Dept. In the sixties, he became photographic consultant for Educational Facilities Laboratories of the Ford Foundation, producing essays on new school architecture as experienced by students and teachers. He also did essays on particular urban environments where school projects were planned. This work appeared in publications produced by EFL and was aimed at giving architects and school boards information on new types of school construction and equipment. He also began teaching in the extension division of State University at Purchase New York in 1970.
1971 – Emigrated to Canada on July 4th and settles on Argyle Shore Prince Edward Island where they establish Bona Fide Farm. Primary work is reclaiming farm, but continues photographing. Official photographer for visit of Queen Elizabeth (GZ Archive)
1976 – Major retrospective at Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown.
1980 – George & Elaine Zimbel decided to leave the farm and chose Montreal where he again took up the life of a freelance documentary photographer. Did assignments for Canadian National RR, Canada Steamship, Bombardier and Northern Telecom.
He also started doing assignments again for The New York Times Sunday Travel Section, continuing a relationship that had begun in the 1950’s. His extensive portfolio in the field of education attracted the attention of the McGill University Information Office, and he began photographing that campus intensely. This resulted in many brochures and posters, and eventually to appointment as chief photographer for the book “McGill, a Celebration” published by McGill Queens Press. Three of his images were chosen for posters by the City of Montreal and this led to an assignment to a photograph a campaign for the Minister of Tourism of Quebec, aimed at the U.S. market. By this time Zimbel was working in both French and English, and he says he felt excited to explore Quebec and have these images shown in the U.S. Both the Montreal posters and the Quebec campaign won awards.
He began an association with Serge Vaisman, director of Art 45, a gallery that had championed the exhibition of contemporary photography in Montreal. This resulted in four solo exhibitions in the eighties: “Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch 1954”; “New York 1950’s/1960’s”; “The European Work 1952/1953” and “Singles & Series, 1951/1985”. Prints from these exhibits form the base of his archive since most of his original prints were destroyed in a fire at his lab in New York in 1966.
His work started to be collected by the Canada Council Art Bank, The Steinberg Collection and The Claridge Collection. As he became increasingly interested in archival printing and exhibition, his work was seen and acquired by the collections of The Museum of Modern Art, New York; The National Gallery of Canada, International Center of Photography, New York; Houston Museum of Fine Arts; Musee du Quebec; Musee d’art Contemporain de Montreal, & Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography and the Brooklyn Museum. There followed a solo exhibit at The Photographers Gallery in London in November of 1992. His work appeared in the MOMA exhibition and book “U.S. Politicians” in the fall of 1994. In February 1995, he had a solo exhibition at Stuart B. Baum Inc., Chicago and in 1996 was represented in Houston MFA’s “New Acquisitions”.
His work began appearing in the auctions, Christies New York & London, Swann in New York, Butterfield & Butterfield auction in San Francisco and Dorotheum Auction in Vienna. In the month of May 1999, he had a solo exhibition in Toronto curated by Stephen Bulger Gallery, appeared in a 1960’s exhibition at Bonni Benrubi Gallery in New York, and a group show of Quebec photographs at the CMCP in Ottawa.
2000 – Retrospective exhibition at IVAM, in Valencia Spain, January 2000. 120 works dating from 1944 to 1999 were included in the exhibition. A catalogue was published with photographs and poems by Zimbel, as well as essays by curator Josep Vicent Monzo, Henry Lehman and Vicente Molina Foix. In November 2000, his retrospective was moved to Sala Millares, Madrid under the auspices of the Minister of Culture of Spain. In April of 2000, he had a solo exhibition “Documents” at John Cleary Gallery, Houston. Later that year he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Canadian Photographers in Communication Quebec Branch.
2001 – In May 2001, a solo exhibition of New York work opened at Columbia University with photographs from the year 1947 to 2000. In August 2001, he was the subject of a profile on the Canadian Broadcasting Company National News.
In October 2001, a solo exhibition of his work was presented by A Gallery For Fine Photography in New Orleans.
2002 – Auctions at Dorotheum Vienna, and Swann, New York; Solo exhibition at Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto.
2004 – Solo exhibition at Confederation Centre of the Arts Museum, Charlottetown, Prince Edward Island; Solo Exhibition Owens Art Gallery.
2005 – Solo Exhibition, Canadian Embassy, Tokyo Group Exhibition, Brooklyn Museum: “Marilyn Monroe” Solo Exhibition, Place Des Arts, Montreal: “Readers”
2006 – PBS American Masters airs “Marilyn Monroe – Still Life” which featured an interview with Zimbel and many of his photographs. John Cleary Gallery in Houston mounts a solo show of Zimbel’s Marilyn Monroe photographs and he appeared in a Staley Wise Gallery Marilyn Exhibition. His extensive photographs appeared in an exhibition, “Streetwork” at Kowasa Gallery in Barcelona. His book, “Bourbon Street, New Orleans 1955” is published by Les Editions du Passage, Montreal. Bourbon St. 1955 (Les editions du Passage, Montreal)
2007 – His photographs appeared in in the following exhibits: The End is Nigh ” Higher Pictures Inaugural Exhibition, NYC, “Bonheur”, Montreal & ” Man & Beast” Parc La Villette, Paris and in auctions at Christie’s New York, Bonhams & Butterfields, San Francisco & Dorotheum, Vienna.
2008 – Solo exhibition “Energy” Kowasa Gallery Barcelona Lecture: Instituto Fotografico del Catalunya Acquisition Spallart Collection
2009 – MOMA traveling Exhibition “Picturing New York” – Spain, Italy & Ireland
2010 – AIPAD: Member of the panel discussing “The Photo League” Interviewed for video produced by The Jewish Museum, NYC & The Columbus Museum of Fine Art regarding experiences at the Photo League. IVAM: Exhibit “Collections” in Valencia. Invited to IVAM as a contributing artist
2011 – Solo Exhibition – Stephen Bulger Gallery, Toronto – Photographs of Children Review of Exhibition: Globe & Mail, CBC radio Norton Museum of Art acquired “Marilyn Monroe 1954 – Creature From the Black Lagoon” Norton Museum of Art – Lecture McMichael Gallery of Art – Lecture on Marilyn Monroe McMichael Gallery of Art – Exhibition (Gp) Marilyn in Canada Publication: A Book of Readers (Les Editions du Passage, Montreal ) Interviews, re: A Book of Readers – Montreal Gazette; Le Devoir; La Presse, CBC radio, Radio Canada Publication: Un Livre du Lecteurs (Editions Lieux Dits, Fr.) Exhibition: Festival Internationale des Livres, Montreal: “Readers” Exhibition (Gp) The Radical Camera, The Photo League 1935-1951 The Jewish Museum, NYC Publication: The Radical Camera, The Photo League 1935-1951 (Yale University Press) Publication: The Radical Camera, Lens – Blog of NY Times Publication: Le Livre des Lecteurs (Les Editions du Passage, Montreal) Exhibition: Solo Exhibition Place Des Arts “Readers”
2012 – Exhibition: “1955” – A Group Exhibit: Stephen Bulger Gallery
2013 – Exhibition: Group Exhibition Kowasa Gallery : Just Kids
2015 – Centre international d’art contemporain de Montréal Anniversary Exhibition. Stephen Bulger Gallery 20th Anniversary A Group Exhibition. Acquisition : George Eastman House Rochester New York. Acquisition: Spallart Collection Vienna Austria
Musee des beaux-arts de Montreal : Solo Exhibition “Three Hot Years. Book Publication: MOMENTO- Black Dog Press , London
Book Publication: MOMENTO- Black Dog Press French Edition. Documentary Film: Zimbelism, A Social Eye.
2017 –August 4th, Elaine passed away surrounded by family after a short illness. George put down his camera, closed his darkroom and has since retired from public life.