'Zimbelism': Hot Docs Review

Zimbelism Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Hot Docs

Zimbelism Still - Publicity - H 2016

An illuminating portrait of a too-little-known photographer artist.

Jean-Francois Gratton's and Matt Zimbel's documentary recounts the life and career of the renowned street photographer.

Unless you're an ardent photography buff, you're not likely familiar with the name George Zimbel. But you've undoubtedly seen some of the gorgeous and evocative images created by the veteran 86-year-old photog who has been practicing his craft for more than seven decades. Fascinatingly chronicling its subject's life and career while extensively showcasing his work, Zimbelism, recently featured at Toronto's Hot Docs festival, should find receptive audiences in art houses and on cable and public television.

Co-directed by Jean-Francois Gratton and Matt Zimbel (the photographer's son, a jazz musician who also contributed much of the bouncy score via his band, Manteca), the film relates how Zimbel is one of the last of a dying breed of street photographers who still use black-and-white 35mm film. The photographer has little use for modern digital cameras with the ability to produce a plethora of images that he colorfully describes as "digital diarrhea."

Zimbel began his career as a photographer and photo editor for Columbia University's student newspaper. He soon became a member of New York City's legendary Photo League (active from 1936 to 1951), where he formed friendships with such contemporaries as Edward Steichen, Berenice Abbott and Garry Winogrand

Deeply socially conscious, Zimbel specialized in street photography, often capturing provocative images without his subjects' knowledge. He now points out that the style has become increasingly difficult to practice due to more stringent privacy laws and increased litigation.

The profusion of NYC newspapers in the '40s and '50s provided him with steady employment. Among his more memorable subjects were Marilyn Monroe, photographed as she was shooting the famous subway-grate scene in The Seven Year Itch; Harry S. Truman, whom Zimbel photographed extensively during his post-presidential years; and John F. Kennedy. It's a picture of the latter and his wife, Jacqueline, smiling and waving from a car during the 1960 presidential campaign in New York City, that provides the documentary with its most dramatic element, namely the lengthy legal battle between Zimbel and The New York Times over that and other images of which they both claim ownership. We hear numerous alternately funny and painful excerpts from the letters between Zimbel and the Times' lawyer, although the decks are a bit stacked by having the latter recited by an actress in an officious, condescending tone. 

Fortunately, Zimbel has not allowed the legal wrangling to overshadow his passion for his work. "I'm a visually upbeat person," he says at one point, and the evidence is in his deeply humanistic images that make the documentary a particular joy to watch on the big screen. And when his prestigious career is finally given the attention it deserves, with major exhibitions in museums in Europe and Montreal, you'll be celebrating just as happily as the photographer himself.

Venue: Hot Docs, Toronto

Production: Bunbury Films

Distributor: National Film Board of Canada

Directors/screenwriters/producers: Matt Zimbel, Jean-Francois Gratton

Executive producer: Frederic Bohbot

Editor: Annie Leclair

Composers: Manteca and Doug Wilde

Not rated, 90 minutes