Monday, August 3, 2009

George Zimbel: Framing Perfection
The year was 1954. The place was New York City. The time was round about midnight. George Zimbel was a 25-year-old stringer for the PIX photo agency when he was handed the opportunity to cover the decade’s reigning sex symbol, Marilyn Monroe, filming the famous subway-grille scene in The Seven Year Itch. Zimbel and the other photographers in attendance were allowed to make like paparazzi while the actress performed some warm-up poses before director Billy Wilder finally called “Action!” Zimbel reaped a rich harvest of images that night, capturing Monroe’s powerful sexual charisma along with her vulnerability and, perhaps more revealing, self-conscious manipulation of her public image. (He also caught Monroe’s soon-to-be-ex-husband Joe DiMaggio leaving in a huff over his wife’s overt display of exhibitionism.) The Monroe photo-essay is but one of many in Zimbel’s long and illustrious career as a documentary photographer—all of them imbued with honesty, compassion and respect for his subjects—but he recalls that night with Marilyn fondly and with cinematic clarity.

George Zimbel (©Lucas Zimbel 2009)

The biography on your website reveals when you became a photographer, but not why.
When I was 14 my uncle Barney asked me to print his 1930s negatives of Europe. I started it as a paid job using our kitchen as a darkroom at night. I ended with the feeling that I wanted to take pictures of interesting people and places for the rest of my life. I have.

Why did you turn to documentary photography rather than portraiture, landscape or another genre?
I have always been interested in what is happening around me instead of “creating” something. I find it more interesting.

You’ve written that collectors should ask themselves if photography is about ideas or feelings. Did you ask yourself those kinds of questions when you were starting out?
I did not ask myself many questions. I knew I had to know about a lot of things and this would enable me to work more intelligently, but I never let ideas overwhelm the instant. Ideas helped me get to the instant. Today, I think it is about feelings. I think it is about sharing your vision of the here and now with the future.

Have you tried to express certain themes or ideas in your photographs?
I don’t think I have tried to express themes or ideas, but what comes out is my interest in this world. That has been very upbeat, but now I don’t have that view and I am having an internal battle over how I see.

The Flower (©George Zimbel 1954/2009)

All of your work exhibits a sincere respect for your subjects. This is very much in keeping with the credo of the New York Photo League, which you reference as a big influence on your artistic development. Can you briefly describe the extent of your relationship with the League beyond a course you took with John Ebstel?
Well, John Ebstel brought the honest man out of me photographically, and that man is compassionate and respectful of his subjects, which is a hallmark of the Photo League philosophy. Respect is not a valuable commodity these days, exploitation is more popular, but that is who I am.

What do you enjoy most about taking photographs?
Capturing an instant to share with whoever wants to look.

Does it provide you with emotional or intellectual satisfaction?
When you start to separate the emotional and intellectual you have trouble being a complete human being, and consequently a good documentary photographer. I was on a photographic jury once, where one of my colleagues kept referencing each image to concepts he must have learned while studying the history of photography. It killed the impact of the work.

Do you still feel a connection to work you made decades ago?
Absolutely. I am 80 years old, a blip in history. If I made a vintage print in 1950 and made a print of that image in 2000, will that really matter in the year 2100? I am sure my prints will be around longer.

Your work was already possessed of a cinematic flair by the time you made your Marilyn Monroe pictures. Were you influenced consciously or otherwise by film imagery?
Every kid of the 1940s has been influenced by films. I began my “Still Movies” project in 1951. It is the way I see. I have the greatest respect for filmmakers. They are magical image-makers. I am not magic. I try to be real.

Serious Marilyn (©George Zimbel 1954/2009)

Your photograph of Monroe standing over the subway grate during the filming of The Seven Year Itch is one of the 1950s’ most iconic sexual images. What did you think about the kind of sexuality she exemplified, and which seems to have been the preferred variety of the American male during that decade?
That’s a very diagnostic question. Don’t forget, she was working that night, mixing her own instincts with Billy Wilder’s direction. The result was very sexy, but it was real. That’s important.

Can you describe the atmosphere of that night? Did Wilder seem to have things under control? I ask because the scene had to be re-shot in the studio apparently due to the crowd noise.
I don’t think it was re-shot because of the crowd noise. Wilder certainly had things under control. I think the NYC shoot may have had too much of a documentary look, and he wanted to keep the Hollywood feel that is apparent throughout the film. It had a very 1950’s studio look.

You’ve written that the photographers arrived around 10:30 pm. Was that when the filming was scheduled to begin? Did you know many of the photographers there?
No. The filming began only after Wilder was satisfied that Marilyn and Tom Ewell had the scene nailed. The warm-up over the subway grille served as a vehicle for the still photographers to get their work done. I hate the term photo-op, but this was certainly the most important photo-op ever staged, notwithstanding George W. Bush landing on a battleship. Photographers from my gang were Ed Feingersh, Garry Winogrand and Bob Henriques. I also saw Elliiott Erwitt, Sam Shaw and Ben Ross on the set.

From the Black Lagoon (©George Zimbel 1954/2009)

Can you describe the impact when Monroe arrived on the scene?
Not as raucous as you would think. Remember, there was a police line separating the crowd from the photographers and film apparatus. There were quiet conversations between Marilyn and her drama coach (Natasha Lytess), and Marilyn and Billy, her director. DiMaggio was there, but he was mostly speaking to the crew. There were of course “Hey, Marilyns” from the crowd, and she handled them with friendly waves.

Was Monroe’s charisma as powerful in person as it was onscreen?
I think it was more powerful.

Did she seem to be performing as much for the onlookers as for the film camera?
No. When the filming began, she did her work. Before the filming began, she played to the still photographers; that was also her work and she knew how to do it par excellence.

Did Wilder seem happy with the way filming was going?
He was like a wise uncle—very cool.

Were you close enough to hear any of Monroe's conversations with Wilder?
I was, but I didn’t. I was too busy photographing.

Did you exchange any words with Monroe, Wilder or anyone in the film crew?
No. When I am shooting, I want to get the action, not be part of it.

Your stills are actually more risqué than the scene in the film, in which her skirt never rises much above her knees, thanks to the Hayes censors. Did the onlookers on the scene seem a bit shocked?
Yes, shocked and wanting more, which she gave them.

Do you recall approximately how many takes of the scene were filmed?

DiMaggio Leaves (©George Zimbel 1954/2009)

How many takes transpired before DiMaggio left?
I don’t know, but he did leave in the middle of the shoot.

Did you feel he was more upset about the scene, his wife’s exhibitionism, or the jokes made by the film crew?
You could have asked Norman Mailer and he would have answered, but he wasn’t even there. And besides, that very creative writer died without ever meeting Marilyn.

These images resonate on several levels: they capture Monroe’s glamor, her joy in performance, the decade’s objectifying attitudes toward women, as well as Monroe’s complicity in and control of those attitudes. Were you consciously trying to work all these layers into the images?
You are not talking about photography here. Remember the term “documentary photographer.”

The image titled “Serious Marilyn” suggests something of her vulnerability and isolation, partly through your framing, and partly through the expression you’ve captured. It’s pure documentary, and it demonstrates what I feel is a democratic attitude on your part: making no distinction between “regular” people and celebrities in your quest to reveal common truths about all of us. Is this a fairly accurate read?
Yes, it is my favorite [image]. Thank you.

Billy and Marilyn (©George Zimbel 1954/2009)

You also made a terrific shot of Wilder and Monroe. It almost looks as if they’re dancing together. In fact, many of your images almost have a choreographed quality to them, although it’s obvious that they’re not staged. Any comment?
Yes, I’m a former tap dancer.

Were you a fan of Monroe or Wilder?

What was your verdict on the film?

Did Tom Ewell have any interaction with the crowd, or was he content to stay in the background and let Monroe work the crowd?
He was a stay-back guy.

Any other memories about the shoot you would like to share?
I want to mention her dress. It was the perfect design for that scene and it did wondrous things as she moved.

Approximately how many images did you shoot that night?
Four rolls.

Did you have any regrets about not trying to capitalize on your pictures at the time?
No. However, I am happy they are now in nine major museum collections and have been in many exhibitions as well as private collections. That makes me happy.

(To see more of Zimbel’s Monroe pictures and his other documentary work, visit For purchase information, contact