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George S. Zimbel, the photographer who documented the shooting of Marilyn Monroe’s most famous movie scene, has died aged 93. 

He was born to Jewish immigrant parents in Woburn, Massachusetts in 1929, where his father owned a dry goods store. While in the 7th grade, George edited his high school newspaper. Aged fourteen, he acquired his first professional camera and began taking photographs for local newspapers and businesses. 

Then in 1947, he began a liberal arts degree at Columbia University, New York. He worked for the college newspaper, and a year later, one of his photographs was published in LIFE magazine. Alongside his academic studies, he was a stringer for one of the first American photo agencies, PIX Inc. In the summer of 1949, he joined the Photo League co-operative with an art student friend, Garry Winogrand.

In 1950, Zimbel photographed General Dwight D. Eisenhower, a hero of World War II and future Republican president. After graduating in 1951, he won a scholarship to the prestigious Alexey Brodevitch Workshop at the New School for Social Research, and met the great portrait photographer Edward Steichen at the Museum of Modern Art. 

That December, George joined the U.S. Army and produced a book of aerial and land-based photographs of the Rhine River. While on leave, he visited Paris and other European cities. He returned to New York in 1953 to begin his career as a freelance photographer, contributing to the New York Times, Redbook, and Parade magazines. 

“We were all doing documentary photography, nothing else,” George said of this period. “But everything was completely different between one and the other because the key to it all lies first in the personality of the photographer. We thought Garry Winogrand made fun of people a bit. Arnold Newman was fair, perfectly fair, you know? Me, I was rather the romantic of the lot …”

A self-confessed ‘political junkie,’ George photographed former President Harry S. Truman in retirement. On the night of September 15, 1954, he joined numerous other photographers – including his college pal, Garry Winogrand – outside the Trans-Lux Theatre on 52nd Street and Lexington Avenue, where Marilyn Monroe was filming a pivotal scene for The Seven Year Itch

Although not a particular fan of Monroe, [Billy] Wilder or the ensuing film, he jumped at the chance to cover the event. His memories of that night remain undimmed by the intervening decades. Zimbel was especially struck by the charged atmosphere generated by the crowd’s anticipation, even though he was under no illusions about the underlying reason for the shoot. ‘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,’ he said. 

But such considerations vanished when Monroe arrived round about midnight in that famous white dress. (A dress that Zimbel says did ‘wondrous things as she moved.’) Initially, Wilder ran Monroe through a number of warm-up poses over the grating until he was satisfied she had the physical aspects of the scene nailed. It was during these warm-ups that the 20 or so photographers (among them Garry Winogrand and Elliott Erwitt) were allowed to take pictures. Monroe played to the onlookers as much as the cameras, and Zimbel recalls their shocked delight each time her dress flew up and revealed more of her than the public was used to seeing.

Though they came early in his career, Zimbel’s images of the event already demonstrated his hallmark combination of cinematic flair and emotional depth. Referring to these dual (but not incompatible) impulses, Zimbel says, ‘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.’ – Cinema Retro

As George would recall in a 2016 interview with Laura Goldstein (see here), the crowd’s reaction became increasingly raucous – and yet, his photos would not see the light of day for many more years.


‘I am more of a determined photographer than a pushy photographer but that night I did something atypical. I started to shoot as the filming commenced. (Strictly forbidden!) There was enough street noise to cover the discrete click of the Leica shutter, but someone obviously didn’t like what I was doing and I was removed from the press photography area and escorted behind the police lines by two of New York’s finest. I used the new viewpoint and kept shooting from there. I remember when all action stopped as two men walked across the set. It was Joe DiMaggio, [Marilyn’s] husband, and Walter Winchell, the Broadway columnist. DiMaggio was furious about the scene (remember it was 1954.) Every publication that could find an excuse to run photos of that event did so. And here is my personal mystery – I decided not to throw my shoot into the editorial pot.’

I ask George bluntly, ‘Why did you do that? Didn’t you kick yourself afterwards?’

‘We all have our priorities,’ he says without regret, ‘and I was working on a photo essay on Irish Americans that had to be completed first. You know we had to fight just to be paid $100. Of course I checked the Marilyn negatives first and then I filed them away unprinted and unpublished.’


In 1955, George married the writer and psychotherapist Elaine Sernovitz – then working for the United Nations – and they moved to the village of Dobbs Ferry in Westchester County. They would raise four children together, and collaborate on travelogues and other works. George then visited Texas and New Orleans, and in 1956, his photos of the Democratic convention in Chicago were published in LOOK magazine. 

He photographed the author and disability activist, Helen Keller, at Harvard University, where she lectured; and at her birthplace in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, for Pageant. In another rare celebrity assignment, he photographed actor Mickey Rooney for LOOK in 1957. Closer to home, he worked on an industrial project in the Bronx in 1958. His own favourite photo, ‘The Goose,’ came from this assignment. 

In 1959 he photographed the eminent broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, and followed Senator John F. Kennedy during his campaign for the Democratic nomination. Like many other Americans, he also watched the Nixon-Kennedy debates on television. “I quickly realised this debate was a game changer for political campaigns,” he recalled, “and raced to my storage cabinet, grabbed a tripod, a camera and a cable release … all the time trying to remember the correct exposure for television.”

He also photographed Kennedy and his wife Jacqueline waving from an open-top car during their presidential campaign in 1960. “The more you look at that picture, the more it gives you the willies,” he said. “You could never do that picture again. You could never get that close.” 

Throughout the next decade, George shot many photo-essays for corporations like Xerox, without the interference of stylists, art directors and public relations departments that has since become commonplace. He undertook advertising campaigns for Kodak, IBM and Mobil Oil, and as a consultant for the Ford Foundation. He also found time for more personal projects, photographing daily life on the streets of Harlem, and children and adults reading.

Disillusioned with America’s involvement in the Vietnam War, George and his family emigrated to Canada on July 4, 1971. For the next nine years, they lived on a farm on Prince Edward Island. George was appointed as official photographer during a state visit by Queen Elizabeth II. Then in 1976, his first major retrospective was held, with the unpublished images of Marilyn – having survived a darkroom fire ten years earlier – among the exhibits.

In 1980, George and Elaine left the farm and moved to Montreal, where he returned to photography full-time. Working in English and French, he conducted an award-winning campaign for Quebec’s Minister of Tourism. His association with Serge Vaisman, director of Art 45 – a Montreal gallery specialising in contemporary photography – led to four solo exhibitions, including one dedicated to Marilyn.

From the 1990s onwards, George focused increasingly on archival printing, and his works were acquired and exhibited worldwide. His first solo London exhibition was held at the Photographers Gallery in 1992; and in 2001, a retrospective was held at George’s alma mater, Columbia University. In 2005, he was featured among Marilyn’s other photographers in an exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum, and another Monroe-focused show soon followed at the Staley-Wise Gallery in Manhattan. 

Interviewed for the PBS documentary, Marilyn Monroe: Still Life (2006), George recalled observing her reaction as DiMaggio walked off the set: “And that’s where I had my favourite photograph of serious Marilyn, she just stopped. And the light is just coming down, light, light, light, light right on top of her head and it’s all black except for her.  It was a heavy moment.”

“Zimbel’s photographs graphically celebrate Monroe’s indelible physical charms while also revealing additional contextual layers: her joy in performance, her awareness of being sexually commodified, and her complicity in and control of that process,” Dean Brierley wrote in a 2008 cover story for Black & White magazine. “His astute use of a silhouetted foreground figure in ‘Serious Marilyn’ subverts the actress’s public image by suggesting the vulnerability and isolation that often dominated her off-screen life.”

Even in his eighties, George still cycled to his studio in Montreal every day. “He loved talking to people, meeting people, exchanging,” his son Andrew remembered. “He was talking to everyone.”

Melinda Mason, owner of the long-running fan-site, Marilyn Monroe and the Camera, attended a 2011 lecture by George at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinburg, Ontario, as part of an exhibition, Marilyn in Canada – which featured his New York images alongside other photographers’ work on location in Canada for Niagara and River of No Return

Zimbel is now 81 years old and the talk was also attended by his wife of over fifty years.  He actually proposed and married her shortly after the Seven Year Itch shoot … 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 [were] also shots that showed Natasha Lytess and of course Marilyn perched on her heels on that grating so her heels did not fall through.

In September 2015, the publication of a full monograph, Momento, was followed by the release of a feature documentary, Zimbelism. An accompanying short film, The Night I Shot Marilyn, can also be viewed online.

“I was very lucky to photograph all of this,” George told Le Devoir. “Today, I would never be granted permission to photograph in libraries, schools or bookstores … We have never been so spied on thanks to the proliferation of images, while real photographers are struggling more and more to work, despite their sharp eyes and their ability to document our common history.”

“I’ve done colour photography, but for me, everything really goes better with black and white,” he said. “I don’t understand today this passion that people have for the hyperrealism produced by digital devices … I am a photographer who belongs to the ‘modern’ era. I am first and foremost interested in people’s lives. Today, many photographers are rather ‘contemporary’: they apply themselves to photographing a chair, an object, the nothingness, the mundane. I don’t really understand this approach, even if I respect it. But for me, it’s the human that interests me.”

After his wife Elaine died in 2017, George S. Zimbel retired from public life, with his family now managing the archive. He is survived by his four children, Matt, Andrew, Ike, and Jodi; a sister, Judi Goldman; and nine grandchildren.

George has gone on to his next assignment.  He left on the morning of January 9th, 2023, around ten after nine, with his son Matt by his side.  He was listening to Glenn Gould playing  Bach on the stereo, and he was surrounded by some of his beautiful images and pictures of Elaine. He was not in any pain and just faded away.