Poet William Blake wrote of “he who kisses the joy as it flies.” That would be an apt description of the American-Canadian photographer George S. Zimbel. A distinctive joie de vivre ripples through Mr. Zimbel’s classic black-and-white images, whether they capture Marilyn Monroe gamely posing on a subway grate, a Teamster in overalls playfully goosing a buddy, or a little deaf-mute girl twirling ecstatically in her private world.
“I’m a visually upbeat person,” Mr. Zimbel said, in the 2015 biographical documentary Zimbelism. “I see things that are ‘up’ and it gets me interested.”
Mr. Zimbel’s joyful pictures set him apart from the other documentary photographers of postwar America. Toronto gallery owner Stephen Bulger, who represents Mr. Zimbel, contrasts his work with that of such contemporaries as Robert Frank and Garry Winogrand – Mr. Zimbel’s college pal – who viewed society through a dark, sardonic lens. “George was a very happy person who felt very privileged to live in the time and place that he did. That’s what he wanted to capture,” Mr. Bulger said. “His exuberance is part of his aesthetic.”
Mr. Zimbel, who died on Jan. 9 in Montreal at the age of 93, projected a lively, puckish spirit that mirrored his pictures, but he claimed not to have an upbeat world view. He was a photographer with a strong social conscience, one of the last members of New York’s legendary, left-wing Photo League, who adhered to its credo of honest photography that depicted the unvarnished realities of daily life.
While he sometimes shot movie stars and politicians, including JFK and Pierre Trudeau, more often Mr. Zimbel trained his camera on ordinary, often working-class people. One of the great street photographers, he loved to roam urban landscapes – first in New York, later in his adopted home of Montreal – and catch priceless moments. He had a special affinity for children, who figure in many of his best-loved photos, such as a pair of little boys playing with a cardboard box, or another with a traffic cone on his head.
His pictures could also speak volumes: a dreamy young man seemingly checking out his prospects at an Irish dance hall in the Bronx, or an elegantly dressed but solitary young woman, forlornly smoking in a New Orleans bar. “He had an incredible eye when it came to finding very human, very touching images,” said his oldest son, filmmaker Matt Zimbel, co-director with Jean-François Gratton of Zimbelism.
George Sydney Zimbel was born on July 15, 1929, in Woburn, Mass., the fourth of five children of Latvian immigrants Morris and Tillie Zimbel (née Gruzen). His fascination with photography began early. When he turned 14, his father, a department-store owner, bought him his first professional camera, a 4x5-inch Speed Graphic. He sold his early photos to the local newspaper, beginning what would be a lifetime of freelancing.
In 1947, he enrolled at Columbia University in New York and continued his career on the side, working as a stringer for the PIX, Inc. agency and Newsweek magazine. He also spent a formative summer with the Photo League, where he both imbibed its philosophy and picked up invaluable darkroom techniques. After graduation in 1951, did a stint with the U.S. Army in Germany as a reconnaissance photographer and took photos around Europe while on leave.
Returning to New York in 1953, Mr. Zimbel went back to freelance work. His most famous photo sequence came about by chance, when he obtained a discarded press pass to a publicity shoot for the 1955 Marilyn Monroe comedy The Seven Year Itch. As a grinning Ms. Monroe cavorted in her billowing white dress above a Lexington Avenue sidewalk grate, Mr. Zimbel grabbed a remarkable series of shots documenting the promotional stunt. They included director Billy Wilder conferring with Ms. Monroe; her then-husband, baseball legend Joe DiMaggio, making a strained visit to the set and, most strikingly, glimpses of the actress off-camera, looking quiet and serious, her signature effervescence turned off like a tap.
“He wasn’t there photographing the celebrity, he was photographing Marilyn the person,” said Andrew Zimbel, Mr. Zimbel’s second son, who manages his father’s archives. “You can see the human being behind the star.”
Almost as remarkable, no one would view those candid pictures until the 1970s. The studio, 20th Century-Fox, provided its own promo images to the press and there was no market for Mr. Zimbel’s photos, so he stashed them away.
Mr. Zimbel did, however, sell many other pictures. In the 1950s and 60s, his work appeared in many of the major U.S. media outlets, from popular magazines Life, Look and Redbook to the New York Times. They included some iconic images of the period, such as his 1960 close-up of a jubilant John and Jacqueline Kennedy riding in a convertible during a ticker-tape parade. “It really illustrates the magic of that Camelot era,” Mr. Bulger said. Between gigs, Mr. Zimbel did self-assigned projects, including one that documented another U.S. president, Harry S. Truman, during his post-White House years.
While in New York, Mr. Zimbel also met his future wife, writer and therapist Elaine Sernovitz, who at the time was working for the United Nations. The two married in 1955 in New Orleans, where Mr. Zimbel was shooting a series on the Bourbon Street nightclub scene – a rejected magazine assignment whose noir-ish images, like those of the Marilyn shoot, would later grace museums.
The couple moved outside New York City and started a family, while Mr. Zimbel continued with a wide variety of assignments, from a Look magazine spread on actor Mickey Rooney to photo illustrations for educational textbooks. By the end of the 1960s, however, the Zimbels had become disillusioned with the United States, particularly its ongoing involvement in the Vietnam War. In 1971, they pulled up stakes and resettled on a derelict farm on the south shore of Prince Edward Island.
Despite having no knowledge of farming, the Zimbels made a go of it, remaining there for a decade. Cut off from the New York scene, Mr. Zimbel turned inwards, chronicling the family’s rural life in charming photos that merge the documentary with the idyllic. He brought his fly-on-the-wall approach to cows, geese, pigs and his own four kids. “He always had a Leica around his neck,” Matt Zimbel remembers, “but it never felt invasive.”
After their children had grown, the Zimbels began hankering for the urban life again and chose to settle in Montreal in 1980. When the art market for photography first boomed in the 1970s, Mr. Zimbel had missed it, but in the 1980s he began to play catch-up. “In Montreal, he made the transition from a photojournalist to an artist,” Matt Zimbel said. “There was a huge uptake of interest in his work and people began to celebrate what he’d done.”
Mr. Zimbel had started exhibiting his work in PEI, unearthing the Marilyn sequence for a 1976 show at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery in Charlottetown. In Montreal, he had further solo exhibitions in the 1980s and his reputation grew. His work was acquired by the Museum of Modern Art and the International Center of Photography in New York, the National Gallery of Canada, the Musée d’Art Contemporain de Montréal and the Tokyo Metropolitan Museum of Photography, among others.
The full scope of his achievement was finally put on display in 2000, when Spain’s Institut Valencià d’Art Modern (IVAM) mounted a major, career-spanning retrospective, in both Valencia and Madrid. In 2006, he appeared on the PBS American Masters series discussing his Marilyn photos. That same year, he was inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts.
As the value of his work increased, Mr. Zimbel also endured some headaches. He entered into a protracted battle with the New York Times over the rights to his famous Kennedys photo, which he discovered was being sold without his knowledge.
At the same time, he delighted in the response his work got from the public. Mr. Bulger recalled how, during a 2005 retrospective of his work at the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, Mr. Zimbel broke away from a meeting with the gallery director and some journalists to watch a troop of Japanese schoolgirls look at his pictures. “He happily got down on the floor, on their level, and talked to them. Later, he would always bring that up as being his favourite memory of Japan. That sums up his personality in a way.”
In later years, Mr. Zimbel dabbled in digital photography but always preferred his trusty Leica. He shook his head at the glut of images spawned by the ubiquitous cellphone camera, referring to it as “digital diarrhea.” But he wasn’t a curmudgeon about it. “He was happy that people were shooting pictures,” Matt Zimbel said. “He enjoyed how democratized photography had become. He could see how much pleasure people got from it.”
After his wife, Elaine Sernovitz-Zimbel, died in 2017, Mr. Zimbel put down his camera, closed his darkroom and never shot another picture. Instead, he wrote poetry, almost all of it about photography.
He left a legacy, not only of historic interest, but also of enduring pleasure. “People write to me and say, ‘I have one of your father’s pictures and it just makes me smile every time I see it,’” Andrew Zimbel said. “It makes you feel good to see his work.”
Mr. Zimbel leaves his four children, Matt, Andrew, Ike and Jodi, and nine grandchildren.