Zimbelism, the long-awaited documentary about photographer George S. Zimbel, had its premiere at the recent Hot Docs Festival in Toronto. Zimbel, now 86, spoke to Laura Goldstein for mashumashu.com about his 72- year career in ‘humanist’ photography, and his memories of Marilyn as she filmed the ‘subway scene’ for The Seven Year Itch. A retrospective of Zimbel’s work, Momento, was published last year.
“‘I am more of a determined photographer than a pushy photographer but that night I did something atypical. I started to shoot as the filming commenced. (Strictly forbidden!) There was enough street noise to cover the discrete click of the Leica shutter, but someone obviously didn’t like what I was doing and I was removed from the press photography area and escorted behind the police lines by two of New York’s finest. I used the new viewpoint and kept shooting from there. I remember when all action stopped as two men walked across the set. It was Joe Dimaggio, (Marilyn’s) husband and Walter Winchell, the Broadway columnist. Dimaggio was furious about the scene (remember it was 1954.) Every publication that could find an excuse to run photos of that event did so. And here is my personal mystery – I decided not to throw my shoot into the editorial pot.’
I ask George bluntly, ‘Why did you do that? Didn’t you kick yourself afterwards?’
‘We all have our priorities,’ he says without regret, ‘and I was working on a photo essay on Irish Americans that had to be completed first. You know we had to fight just to be paid $100. Of course I checked the Marilyn negatives first and then I filed them away unprinted and unpublished. They even survived a fire in my darkroom in 1966 and my move to Canada in 1971.’
Amazingly, the Monroe photographs weren’t shown until over 20 years later, in Zimbel’s solo exhibition in 1976 at Confederation Centre of the Arts, Prince Edward Island, Canada. The full set was shown for the first time in 1982 at Galerie Art 45 in Montreal.
As Zimbel reminisces, ‘In January 2000 I had a retrospective in Valencia Spain and my Marilyns were exhibited on the walls of Sala Muralla, a gallery fashioned from an ancient archeological site at Institut Valencia d’Art Modern where they shared space with an ancient plaque of a Roman goddess. I felt it was a homecoming for her image.'”