George Zimbel: The Long-Distance Runner

Words: Henry Rasmussen

The Photo League, active during the same period (1936–1951), emanated from the German communist organization the Worker’s International Relief, and as such declared that documentary photography should focus on political and social causes. This provided a cogent action program that promoted a cohesive and distinctive output, which explains the temptation to see the League members as a dominant force—all the more since its roster reads like a documentary photography who’s who: Among the 84 members are found many of the most important names—Berenice Abbott, Arthur Fellig (Weegee) and Eugene Smith, to single out a few.

The final entry in the roster is George S. Zimbel. With his surname, one would expect him to end up last on every list, but in this case the significance may be symbolic: Zimbel is one of the last still-with-us, still-active photographers whose creative philosophy was directly influenced through participation in the Photo League program.

It’s hard to sum up a life’s work in a few words, but one can easily identify the Zimbel touch: the ability to harness spontaneous moments into cohesive and meaningful visual statements; a sincere and empathetic respect for his subjects; an eye for emotional subtleties and physical textures; an involving and sometimes visceral sense of lives being lived.

George Sydney Zimbel was born in 1929 in Woburn, Massachusetts, a town of 20,000 located 12 miles northwest of Boston. His father, Morris—who owned a dry goods store—and his mother, Tillie, were both of Jewish descent, with roots in Estonia and Lithuania. George’s first contact with the capture of photographic images came via an 8mm film camera he used to record activities of family and friends. The adventure ended abruptly when the camera accidentally slipped into the dark waters of the nearby Horn Pond. He was just 13.

The following year, 1943, marked the next step in George’s photographic journey and was taken when his father loaned him $250 to buy a Speed Graphic—an all-black wartime model. Another step was taken when an uncle, an architect in New York, hired George to print his early thirties travel photographs from Europe, a task George performed at night in the Zimbel family kitchen.

We next find George making photographs for his high school’s first yearbook. After graduation, he was accepted at New York City’s venerable Columbia College, where his courses included literature, philosophy, history, political science and theater—but not photography. At the strong suggestion of his parents, who worried that his shutterbug passion would distract him, he left his camera behind—only to come back for it the following month. He was now 18.

Life in the big city meant new opportunities for young Zimbel—he began photographing and writing for the college paper, and even had a photograph published in Life magazine. After finishing his sophomore courses in 1949, he decided to try to make a living as a photographer. Subletting a room on 92nd Street, he began looking for freelance jobs, and soon found himself shooting for architects and builders, earning $15 a print. He was also signed on as a stringer for PIX, one of the earliest photo agencies.

More significant that year was his decision to take a course at the Photo League with John Ebstel. Under his tutelage Zimbel learned not only the art of making fine black-and-white prints but what it meant to be a documentary photographer. “I became an honest photographer,” Zimbel reflects.

Also in 1949, Zimbel met Garry Winogrand, introducing him to the Columbia Camera Club, where they established the informal “Midnight to Dawn Club,” its designation referring to their habit of using the university’s darkroom to print all night. After such feats, Winogrand would go home to bed, while Zimbel would go directly to his first morning class.

The next two years saw further consolidation of his career. Zimbel’s association with PIX, where Alfred Eisenstadt was the star, resulted in his first “prime time” assignment, that of photographing Dwight Eisenhower. The occasion also marked another first, that of using a Leica.

After graduating in 1951, Zimbel went to the New School for Social Research, a progressive New York college, where he met with Berenice Abbott, intending to sign up for her course. She was impressed by his portfolio and instead suggested that he apply for Alexey Brodovitch’s workshop. Brodovitch was the legendary art director at Harper’s Bazaar, and counted among his students such future luminaries as Irving Penn, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus.

On Brodovitch’s advice, Zimbel showed his work to Edward Steichen, chief curator of photography at the Museum of Modern Art, who offered the bright young photographer a look at original prints by such masters as Walker Evans, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Steichen himself. It was in the solitude of a museum conference room that Zimbel’s vision of photography as an art form took on a new focus.

While Zimbel’s fortunes were rising, the Photo League’s were falling. The end of World War II spawned the Cold War, and with it the communist witch hunt. Prying eyes were everywhere. The League’s origin in the worker’s movement made it a target—after testimony from a member who was an FBI informant, the League was blacklisted. The cooperative’s philosophy had over time moved away from its political agenda, and the leaders defended the organization vigorously, but there was no cure for the “Red Scare,” and the doors were closed in 1951.

As the year neared its end, so did the Brodovitch course. Zimbel was again facing decisions affecting his career. With the Korean War raging, the nation’s thoughts were preoccupied by events halfway around the world—as were Zimbel’s. He had since childhood dreamed of being a war photographer, and now saw a way to make the dream a reality: active military service. When Steichen learned of this plan, he suggested Zimbel join the Navy photography unit he had founded in World War II. The posting was in Hawaii, but lasted four years, so Zimbel declined and chose the Army’s two-year tour, figuring he could resume his career in New York that much sooner.

Zimbel’s tour as a war photographer, though, did not match his expectations. He was shipped to Germany and assigned to a Combat Engineer Unit on the Rhine. The work involved recording the river’s flood stages, and was done through low-level photography from a slow-moving plane. A perk was that he could use his leaves for private photographic excursions. Travels throughout England, France and Italy allowed him to hone his eye for street photography. The gig wasn’t so bad after all.

Unfortunately, this was the very moment when the Red Scare once again reared its ugly head. Men wearing unmarked uniforms arrived unannounced at Zimbel’s base in Germany. They were from a super-secret agency that monitored intelligence activities. Their inspection found everything in order until a question on a form asking if Zimbel had belonged to any of a long list of organizations—the Photo League among them—demanded Zimbel’s honest “yes.” Within minutes he was relieved of his job and assigned to “housekeeping duties.” It took 18 days of uncomfortable uncertainty before he was called up to the Colonel’s office and told that he had been “cleared” by the FBI and could have his job back.

At the end of his tour, he returned to New York and assignments for The New York Times, Look, Redbook, Saturday Review and others. To cap the year, he was made a member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers. He was 24.

Nineteen-fifty-four turned out to be a banner year for Zimbel, inaugurating a period of activity that catapulted him into the top echelon of his profession. One of the first personal assignments that year was the initiation of a study on Harry Truman. The project eventually lasted ten years, and resulted in A President In Retirement, a collection of 500 prints now in the Truman Library.

Two photographs from 1954 have attained icon status. The first stems from a series Zimbel shot of Marilyn Monroe during a promotional event for her movie The Seven Year Itch. The setting was a steamy September night in New York City, at the corner of Lexington Avenue and 52nd Street, where a crowd of news photographers and stargazers had gathered. As Monroe posed atop a subway grate the hot air blew her pleated skirt above her waist. With flash bulbs popping and the crowd going wild Zimbel shot four rolls, then went home, developed his film, put it in his negative safe box—and didn’t print a frame until two decades later. As an explanation Zimbel suggests that at the time he had been embarrassed, feeling that it was “just another Tinseltown stunt.”

The second icon is “Irish Dance Hall, the Bronx.” Few images capture more poignantly the experience of being young in the fifties, those heady days when sexuality began to flow overtly into music, dance and fashion. Zimbel’s shutter blinks at the “decisive moment,” recording perfectly the tension between the cocky young man and his potential dance partners, their nervous eagerness hanging in the air like cigarette smoke.

This was also the year Zimbel met Elaine Sernovitz, a Milwaukee transplant to New York who had just returned from Paris, where she had been a student and teacher at the Sorbonne as well as a short story writer. She would soon be his bride.

The following year marked the beginning of a period in Zimbel’s professional and personal life that not only saw the consolidation of his stature as a documentary photographer but also interjected a new ingredient—being a husband and father. George and Elaine tied the knot and moved from their apartment in Manhattan to a house in Dobbs Ferry, New York, where Matthew was born in 1956. Andrew arrived in 1958, and Ike in 1961. Family life agreed with the Zimbels: Jodi, a lovely two-year-old Korean girl, was adopted in 1964.

Zimbel completed an impressive range of projects during the next few years. With each series, he strove to live up to the creative and humanistic principles he had assimilated in the Photo League. Whenever possible, he chose assignments that allowed him to work with minimal “interference” from editors, art directors and corporate public relations people. With his professional standing at its apex, he kept busy throughout the sixties with a steady stream of assignments and achievements.

Zimbel’s career was going well, but the same could not be said about the nation, where disillusionment with the government reached a fever pitch at the close of the decade. The 1970 demonstrations at Kent State, sparked by Nixon‘s decision to invade Cambodia, saw four students shot to death by National Guardsmen. The watershed event hit close to home for Zimbel—his niece was one of the front-line marchers. The endless war, the continued protests, the turmoil, all worked in unison with the stress of a hectic professional period to make the Zimbel family long for a change of lifestyle. And so in 1971, George and Elaine moved their family to a 100-acre farm on Prince Edward Island in Canada.

Zimbel’s “detour” lasted nearly a decade. By 1980, the children had grown up and moved on, and George and Elaine—now Canadian citizens—reentered urban life, settling in Montreal, where George returned to his profession. He was 51.

At this new stage of his life, Zimbel chose his projects more carefully, often giving preference to the personal. Growing interest among collectors for his photographs found him spending more time in the darkroom. Serge Vaisman, director of Montreal’s Art 45 gallery, gave Zimbel four solo exhibitions between 1982 and 1989. Major museums began to acquire his work, spearheaded by the Museum of Modern Art and The International Center of Photography, both in New York, and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.

Shows in Toronto, New York and Chicago were followed by a 2000 exhibition at the Institute Valencia D’Art Modern, Spain. That same year, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award from Canadian Photographers in Communication. In 2006 his book Bourbon Street, New Orleans, 1955, was published by Les Editions du Passage, Montreal, and in 2011, The Book of Readers, by the same publisher. In 2001, Zimbel was the subject of a profile aired by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, and in 2004, he was featured in the PBS American Master’s production Marilyn Monroe: Still Life. A documentary on his life and work is currently in production, planned for release later this year.

This spring, George begins his 71st year as an active photographer. Printing from his archive and working with galleries and museums to prepare for upcoming exhibitions keeps him busy every day. And after all these years, the philosophy of the Photo League still inspires him as he peers through the viewfinder of his well-worn Leica. In July, he turns 85.

Fact File
See more of George’s work and follow his blog at georgezimbel.com.

Photo 1 Photo 3 Photo 5 Photo 7 Photo 9
1%29_marilyn_and_billy_wilde_copy Marilyn and Billy Wilder, 1954