silver gelatin print, documentary image of metro scene, Montreal by artist George Zimbel

Sprawl is used to describe the growth of contemporary cities, where development and expanding networks of roads have shifted populations from cities to suburbs. The past several decades have also witnessed the development of "edge cities", urban cores that develop on the far fringes of metropolitan areas. The work of documentary photographer George Zimbel reveals dimensions of changing urban experiences of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

George Zimbel
1987
CAG 2004.11.10
© 2006, Confederation Centre Art Gallery. All Rights Reserved.


About the artist

Born in Massachusetts in 1929, Zimbel launched his career in photography while attending high school. He is famous for having photographed personalities such as John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Marilyn Monroe, and Helen Keller. He is also known for his photographic documentation of life in urban America in the 1950s and 1960s. His work has been published in many major US publications, including Life, Look, and The New York Times, and can be seen in many galleries and museums throughout Europe and North America, including the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

During the 1970s, he and his family resided in Prince Edward Island where he photographed Charlottetown Festival musical theatre productions, an official visit by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and Canadian political figures including Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, and Rene Levesque. In 1976 he was asked to show a major retrospective of his work at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, which included the first-ever showing of photographs he took in 1954 of Marilyn Munroe during a publicity stunt for her movie Read More

About the artist

Born in Massachusetts in 1929, Zimbel launched his career in photography while attending high school. He is famous for having photographed personalities such as John F. Kennedy, Harry S. Truman, Marilyn Monroe, and Helen Keller. He is also known for his photographic documentation of life in urban America in the 1950s and 1960s. His work has been published in many major US publications, including Life, Look, and The New York Times, and can be seen in many galleries and museums throughout Europe and North America, including the National Gallery in Ottawa and the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.

During the 1970s, he and his family resided in Prince Edward Island where he photographed Charlottetown Festival musical theatre productions, an official visit by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, and Canadian political figures including Pierre Trudeau, Joe Clark, and Rene Levesque. In 1976 he was asked to show a major retrospective of his work at the Confederation Centre Art Gallery, which included the first-ever showing of photographs he took in 1954 of Marilyn Munroe during a publicity stunt for her movie The Seven Year Itch. Zimbel was among over 20 still photographers who photographed Monroe in the famous scene where she stands on 52nd Street in New York with her white dress swirling up around her in a gust of air. While he took the photographs in 1954, he did not print them for over 20 years. In 1980, he and his wife Elaine Sernovitz, a writer and psychotherapist, moved to Montreal. He is a life member of the American Society of Magazine Photographers and in 2000 was awarded a lifetime achievement award by the Canadian Photographers in Communication.

About the work

Sitting firmly within the history of social documentary photography, in Zimbel's black and white photographs are accounts of social, cultural, and political conditions of the twentieth century. Through his documentary work in the 1950s in New York, Europe, and New Orleans that included political projects on Harry Truman and John F. Kennedy, his coverage of The Seven Year Itch film shoot in New York City in 1954 with Marilyn Monroe, Billy Wilder, and Joe DiMaggio, and extensive coverage of the U.S. educational scene in the 1960s, Zimbel was engaged less in a photojournalistic career than his own independent political study. The images are not about heroics, instead revealing banality as part of the pattern and texture of both intimate and public realities.

Part of a generation of immigrants who left the United States during the turbulent period of the late 1960s, the photographer was deeply involved in protests against the Vietnam War. Emigrating to Canada in 1971, images he created in Prince Edward Island and more recent photographs recording his current place of residence, Montreal, are documents of the powerful cultural residue of figures of this generation, locally as well as nationally. Zimbel has been dedicated to recording elements of his daily experience and surroundings, producing images such as Fun, Fun which offer records of contemporary experience. Like many documentary photographers, Zimbel's true allegiance has been to evolving a way of seeing, a way of relating to a subject through the camera lens. For the "straight" look at reality is also a fiction, an inherently personal act—equal parts technical precision and emotional content, social comment and psychological meaning.


© 2006, Confederation Centre Art Gallery. All Rights Reserved.

image of transitional highway landscapes associated with urban spaces by artist Jaclyn Shoub

Considering the work of artists like Zimbel and Jaclyn Shoub, who has focused on the architecture and landscape of the transitional area between urban and rural settings and the transition, dislocation and isolation experienced driving through this sprawling landscape, discuss the role of technological change and its role in the changing face of urban settings.

Jaclyn Shoub, Untitled (Naples Yellow Reddish), from Passenger Series
1998
© 2006, Confederation Centre Art Gallery. All Rights Reserved.


Literary landscapes allow further exploration of the reality of contemporary urban experience. Sprawl has been a key element of the transformation of cities. Highway expansion and transportation networks allowed workers to commute greater distances and the growth of new suburban areas soared, whereas central cities were either stagnating or declining. The past several decades have not only witnessed the expansion of suburbs but also the development of "edge cities", urban cores that develop on the far fringes of metropolitan areas, and "freeway cities," as roadways extend further and further.

And yet, despite these common changes, everyday experience of cities remains dependent on specific places and their characteristics. Using Douglas Coupland's description of the landscape of the contemporary city of Vancouver in Hey, Nostradamus!, consider the nature of contemporary urban life. Selecting a series of five documentary images from web sources of urban contexts to illustrate your work, create your own creative writing evoking urban contexts.


I loved the world, its beauty and Read More

Literary landscapes allow further exploration of the reality of contemporary urban experience. Sprawl has been a key element of the transformation of cities. Highway expansion and transportation networks allowed workers to commute greater distances and the growth of new suburban areas soared, whereas central cities were either stagnating or declining. The past several decades have not only witnessed the expansion of suburbs but also the development of "edge cities", urban cores that develop on the far fringes of metropolitan areas, and "freeway cities," as roadways extend further and further.

And yet, despite these common changes, everyday experience of cities remains dependent on specific places and their characteristics. Using Douglas Coupland's description of the landscape of the contemporary city of Vancouver in Hey, Nostradamus!, consider the nature of contemporary urban life. Selecting a series of five documentary images from web sources of urban contexts to illustrate your work, create your own creative writing evoking urban contexts.


I loved the world, its beauty and bigness as well as its smallness: the first thirty seconds of the Beatles' "Lovely Rita"; pigeons sitting a fist apart on the light posts entering Stanley Park; huckleberries both bright orange and dusty blue the first week of June; powdered snow down to the middle gondola tower of Grouse Mountain by the third week of every October; grilled cheese sandwiches and the sound of lovesick crows on the electrical lines each May. The world is a glorious place, and filled with so many unexpected moments that I'd get lumps in my throat, as though I were watching a bride walk down the aisle….1


1 Douglas Coupland, Hey, Nostradamus!, Toronto: Random House, 2004, 8. Excerpt reprinted with permission of the author.

© 2006, Confederation Centre Art Gallery. All Rights Reserved.

Learning Objectives

These materials are intended to be used at the secondary level to address art education, language arts, and social studies curriculum outcomes. Students will (be expected to):

Social Studies

  • apply concepts associated with time, continuity, and change
  • research and describe historical events and ideas from different perspectives
  • identify, evaluate, and use appropriate primary and secondary sources to learn and communicate about the past
  • use spatial concepts and models to interpret and make decisions about the organization, distribution, and interaction of physical and human phenomena

Language Arts

  • ask discriminating questions to acquire, interpret, analyze, and evaluate ideas and information
  • generate questions as a guide to research
  • examine relationships between different forms of expression

Visual Arts

  • derive images through the study of historical images from their own and other's cultures
  • investigate visual communication systems as integral to everyday life

Teachers' Centre Home Page | Find Learning Resources & Lesson Plans