George S. Zimbel (born July 15, 1929) is an American-Canadian documentary photographer. He has worked professionally since the late 1940s, mainly as a freelancer. He was part of the Photo League and is one of its last surviving members. Born in Massachusetts, he settled in Canada about 1971. His works have been shown with increasing frequency since 2000, and examples of his work are part of several permanent collections including the Museum of Modern Art
and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
. George Zimbel has been described as a humanist. He has published several books of his photographs and in 2016 was the subject of a documentary retrospective film co-directed by his son Matt Zimbel and distributed by the National Film Board of Canada.
Born George Sydney Zimbel in Woburn, Massachusetts, son of a dry goods store owner, he attended Woburn High School and was the school's yearbook photographer. He later studied at the Photo League under John Ebstel. George Zimbel then enrolled in Columbia University in New York where he became the school's news photographer. There he met art student Garry Winogrand
and introduced Winogrand
to photography. They used the school's darkroom late at night to avoid crowding at other times of the day, and they called themselves the "Midnight to Dawn Club"
. Both Zimbel and Winogrand later both studied under Alexey Brodovitch
at the New School for Social Research on scholarships in 1951.
He next met Edward Steichen
, the then curator of the Museum of Modern Art
who showed Zimbel original prints by early masters of photography, and this sealed his decision to take up photography as a career. On Steichen's advice, he had a stint as a photographer with the US Army and spent 2 years in Europe during the restoration period following World War II.
On his return to America, he became a freelance photographer. One of his early opportunities was the famous Marilyn Monroe shoot on Lexington Avenue in 1954 to promote her film The Seven Year Itch
, at which Monroe wore her famous white dress. Zimbel never sold any of these images and packed them away until 1976, whereupon he printed them and began to show them in solo exhibitions.
He was married to Elaine Sernovitz in 1955. A professional writer, she has collaborated with George Zimbel on travelogues and other works. George and Elaine Zimbel had four children including jazz musician Matt Zimbel, founder of Manteca. Matt Zimbel co-produced and co-directed (with Jean-Francois Gratton) a documentary film about his father called Zimbelism
, released in 2016.
In 1971, Zimbel and his family moved to the small community of Argyle Shore, Queens County, Prince Edward Island where they raised animals for the next 10 years at a farm they called "Bona Fide Farm"
. After their children moved away, he and his wife relocated to Montreal, where they still reside.
Though he was widely published in publications such as the New York Times
, Look, Redbook and Architectural Digest in the 1950s and 60s, he did not become widely recognized until a retrospective exhibition of his work was mounted at the Institut Valencià d'Art Modern in Spain in 2000. Since then he has had several major shows around the world.
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’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