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Remembering George Zimbel Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

28 January 2023

George Zimbel, who proudly identified himself as one of the last elders of photography faithful to the legacy of the Photo League, passed away earlier this month at a care facility in Montreal. He was 93.

Zimble was born in Woburn, Mass. His father Morris owned a dry goods store while his mother Tillie took care of the home and helped out at the store. Zimbel devoured Life and Look, the picture magazines of the era, and bought a Speed Graphic, the preferred tool of press photograhers, when he was 14. He shot photos for both his high school yearbook and college newspaper.

He sold his first photos as a student at Columbia University from which he graduated in 1951. There he met Garry Winogrand, introducing the art student to photography.

At the same time, he studied under John Ebstel at the Photo League, which shut down in 1951 after accusations it harbored Communists. He studied printmaking and documentary photography, which he would practice for the next 70 years.

After college he studied with Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper's Bazaar, at the New School for Social Research. Then he spent two years in Europe with the Army during the Korean War.

When he returned, he began his freelance career, shooting for publications like the New York Times, Look, Redbook, Architectural Digest and Saturday Review.

Of all those images a few stand out.

In 1954, working without an assignment for the Pix photo agency, he found himself at Lexington Ave. and 52nd Street in Manhattan during the filming of Billy Wilder's The Seven Year Itch.

He was one of the photographers on hand when a fan beneath a subway grating blew Marilyn Monroe's white dress upward. Sam Shaw, the film's still photographer, caught the most well-known view of the stunt but Zimbel, seeing beyond the movie set, caught even more.

He got a glimpse of Monroe's less-than-pleased husband, the Yankee centerfielder Joe DiMaggio. And he captured Monroe later in a more thoughtful pose.

None of which he published at the time. "I'm not sure why," he said, "but I didn't."

Only 22 years later did the images see the light of day.

Another of his well-known photos is an intimate image of Senator John F. Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline riding in an open convertible in a Manhattan parade during the 1960 presidential campaign.

"The more you look at that picture, the more it gives you the willies," he said. Only a few years later would then President Kennedy riding in an open convertible in Dallas with his wife be assassinated.

And for 10 years until 1964, he persued a personal project of taking photos of former president Harry Truman.

But for the most part, Zimbel preferred shooting ordinary people doing ordinary things. The legacy of his time at the Photo League was his "personal commitment towards the people and the social landscapes they documented."

In the late 1960s, Zimbel worked in corporate photography and for a research organization established by the Ford Foundation.

He moved to Canada in 1971 in protest of the Vietnam War where he lived on Prince Edward Island farm on before moving to Montreal.

His work is in 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.

When his wife Elaine died in 2017, he put down his camera and closed his darkroom.

He is survived by his sons Andrew, Matt and Ike; his daughter Jodi Zimbel; his sister Judi Goldman; and nine grandchildren.

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