Low Plaza

Photographs by George S. Zimbel, CC '51, Illuminate Half Century of American Life

By Ulrika Brand

Jacqueline and John Kennedy, N.Y.C. 1960, copyright George S. Zimbel 1960/2001

The exhibition, "George Zimbel, Columbia College, 1951: Photographs 1947-2000," is currently on view in Columbia's Low Rotunda through June 3rd and will again be exhibited August 27th through October 1st. Zimbel, CC'51, who is celebrating the 50th anniversary of his graduation this year, began his professional career while an undergraduate at Columbia. The photographs in this mini-retrospective illuminate key historical moments in America, both public and private, ranging from "A Late Night Kiss, Harlem 1951" and images of Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and Richard M. Nixon to views of the Columbia campus in 1968 and 2000. All prints were made by Zimbel and are on loan from the Bonni Benrubi Gallery of Manhattan.

A noted documentary photographer, Zimbel has worked for major American newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, Redbook, Parents, the Saturday Review and Architectural Forum, and exhibited at the Photographer's Gallery in London, the Houston Museum of Fine Art, the IVAM in Spain and the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. His photographs are in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art.

Zimbel began taking photographs at the age of 13 in Woburn, Mass. The earliest photograph in the exhibition is "New York Harbor, 1947," which Zimbel took shortly after his arrival on the Columbia campus. At Columbia, Zimbel earned a B.A. in liberal arts, studying with such luminaries as Mark Van Doren, Charles Frankel and Joseph Wood Krutch.

"These people opened up the world for me," said Zimbel, who noted that his education was a major asset when he later went out on political assignments. At Columbia, Zimbel took photographs for the student newspaper, the Columbia Spectator, as well as for the Jester and the Columbia alumni magazine. He was a member of the Camera Club, which had a 24-hour lab. While still a student, he worked as a stringer for Newsweek and had photos published in Life and The Daily News.

"When I graduated that September [of '51] I wanted to take a course at The New School with Berenice Abbott," said Zimbel. After looking at his photographs, "She said, 'You don't need me," recalled Zimbel. Abbott urged Zimbel to look up Alexey Brodovitch, then a teacher at the New School and the art director of Harper's Bazaar. Zimbel received a scholarship to study with Brodovitch who in turn referred him to Edward Steichen. Under Steichen's tutelage Zimbel studied the photo collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

George S. Zimbel

Zimbel's work has included an ongoing series of portraits of politicians, including Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy and Nixon, who are represented in the Columbia exhibition. From 1954 to 1964 he undertook a ten-year project on Harry Truman; 500 study prints that resulted are now in the Truman archive in Independence, Mo.

In the late 1960s, he became photographic consultant to the Ford Foundation's Educational Facilities Laboratories. Among the photos he took during this period were "Strike, Columbia University," "Student and Alexander Hamilton" and "Bake a Cake, Columbia University," all from 1968 and included in the exhibition.

Also on view in the exhibition are Zimbel's images of celebrities at work, including Marilyn Monroe and Carol Channing, along with street photographs. "My work begins with recording an image, but it is not finished until I have made a fine print. That is my photograph," Zimbel said. In an era of increased manipulation of the photographic image by computer technology, Zimbel's commitment to the "straight" photograph has become stronger.

Published: May 30, 2001
Last modified: Sep 18, 2002

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