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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 21, No. 1 September 2015

Zimbel: A Unique Approach to Photography

by Charles-David Tremblay / September 1, 2015

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 George S. Zimbel

World-famous for his photographs of Marilyn Monroe in a white dress, standing over a New York subway vent, U.S. photographer George S. Zimbel is the subject of an upcoming exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA). This memorable artist, still using an old Leica camera, is known for his hands-on approach and the limitless energy he devotes to the art of photography. This fall, George S. Zimbel – A Humanist Photographer will reveal the work of this great craftsman, who has lived in Montreal since 1980.

George S. Zimbel discovered his passion for photography as a teenager and began freelancing for Massachusetts newspapers at the age of 14. However, he was really fascinated by politics, and throughout his career this interest inspired his best work. In the 1950s and 1960s he photographed many powerful people, including John F. Kennedy, his wife Jacqueline, and Richard Nixon.

The MMFA will exhibit around 70 photographs taken between 1953 and 1955. “The aim of the show is to expose the Quebec public to Zimbel’s work via a selection from the 1950s,” says exhibition curator Diane Charbonneau over the telephone. While part of his work covers the big-name stars, he is also concerned with ordinary people in everyday life. The pictures are in black and white, so audiences can more readily appreciate Zimbel’s natural talent. One wall is dedicated to Marilyn Monroe, another to other personalities such as Harry Truman, and the last wall covers the photographer’s military service in Italy and Germany, tracing his artistic progress.

Many of the works shown are devoted to urban life, whether the Bronx in 1954 or Bourbon Street, New Orleans, in 1955. There are series of cars, women and children, depicting the social climate of the 1950s. “The photos are about people, architecture, and his personal view of the world,” says Diane Charbonneau. The exhibition, while running through certain themes such as city life and the post-war years, transcends barriers because the photos are universal, possessed of a striking realism, and profoundly human.

Zimbel, using old enlargers saved from a studio fire, did all the prints in the exhibition. The hands-on nature of his work reveals the artist’s personality. As Charbonneau explains, “He regards society with a humanist eye. George is a sensitive person who’s engaged with the world around him.” Zimbel empathizes with his subjects and is himself part of the social fabric he photographs; he is immersed in the universe he is capturing visually. Eschewing controversy, he cultivates a different approach: rather than being intrusive, he regards subjects inclusively, highlighting individuals’ idiosyncrasies and lending them a voice through his pictures. “He’s intuitive and spontaneous at the same time, and he’s also a narrator, in contrast to society today,” observes the curator.

The fruit of a collaboration between Zimbel and Charbonneau, the exhibition is essential viewing for anyone who wishes to become better acquainted with this great photographer of the 20th century. “Working with him was great fun, and we sifted through the photos together to find those that would create an attractive, coherent exhibition for the public to see,” says the curator. The show will be the Museum’s way of not only paying tribute to this pioneer of photography in Canada, but also underlining the importance of Zimbel’s artistic contribution both here and throughout the world.

Translation: Cecilia Grayson

The exhibition George S. Zimbel – A Humanist Photographer, will run from September 9, 2015, to January 3, 2016. MMFA: www.mbam.qc.ca/en/exhibitions/upcoming/george-zimbel

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