I had the honour today of attending a lecture by George Zimbel at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario. Zimbel's work is on display at the museum as part of the Marilyn in Canada exhibit.
"In 1954, George Zimbel was among a small group of photographers who documented the famous scene from The Seven Year Itch which captured the iconic image of Marilyn Monroe in her white billowing dress; an early example of his view that photography is the art of spontaneity. This special lecture will position these Marilyn Monroe images within the history of photography and highlight Zimbel’s own artistic practice of non-intervention."
Zimbel is now 81 years old and the talk was also attended by his wife of over 50 years. He actually proposed and married her shortly after the seven year itch shoot. Zimbel was one of a number of photographers on the set of the dress blowing scene. He spent approximately 2 hours on the set, which he admits he was removed from because he continued to take photos after filming began.
He was 25 years old and was there simply to document this moment in history. He was not on assignment and did nothing with the photos until 20 years later in 1974 when they started appearing in galleries. When asked why he waited so long it became clear that Marilyn was a blip in his life's work and not something he focused on. He worked only in black and white and still develops his own photos. He considers himself a documentary photographer where he captures a moment that is happening instead of trying to create a scene.
During the lecture he walked us through a slideshow of some of his photos from that day. It was truly amazing as I had never seen some of them before. In particular he had photos of the stand-ins for Marilyn and Tom Ewell testing the dress blowing on the grate. There was also shots that showed Natasha Lytess and of course Marilyn perched on her heels on that grating so her heels did not fall through.
The most powerful shots he captured showed Joe DiMaggio's reaction to Marilyn's skirt being blown up over her head. To actually see Joe on that night when we all know there was a massive blow-out between them after this and a divorce to follow. We can see Joe walking away with his friend, Walter Winchell after watching the crowd reaction to his wife in her underwear. The next shot is Marilyn looking sad watching Joe leave. It is my favourite shot by Zimbel, she is standing there so serene framed by darkness.
Zimbel also mentioned a close friend and fellow photographer who was also there taking shots of Marilyn. You can see him in some of Zimbel's shots. His name was Ed Feingersh and several times it was mentioned that his life ended way too soon and then finally the admission that he had committed suicide. Feingersh took the Chanel No. 5 photos of Marilyn the following year in 1955.
I'm excited to report that Mr. Zimbel signed my copy of BW magazine featuring his photos!
To see more on George Zimbel watch this segment of the documentary Marilyn Still Life (he appears around 1 minute in) where he revisits the subway grating and discusses his photos.