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Exhibit highlights photographer's career
The Canadian Jewish News
By Rita Poliakov
April 29, 2010

TORONTO —There are about 65 faces in Toronto’s Market Gallery. Some are laughing, some are smiling, some are lost in thought.

Al Gilbert has photographed everyone from talk-show host Larry King to former Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion. Talk-show host Larry King is there. Former Toronto mayor Mel Lastman is there. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is there. And they all have one thing in common.

Well, one person.

Al Gilbert.

Gilbert is a Toronto photographer who is known not only for his expert use of light and ability to bring out his subject’s personality in a few shots but also for the subjects themselves.

Gilbert, whose career has spanned more than 60 years, has taken photos of hundreds of celebrities and politicians, including U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden, former Israeli prime minister David Ben-Gurion and, one of his personal favourites, Beverly Harvard, the first black female to run a major police department in the United States.

About 65 of Gilbert’s photos are on display at the Market Gallery in St. Lawrence Market. Called “Facets of Fame,” the exhibit, which launched last week and runs until Sept. 11, explores both Gilbert’s career and the evolution of his studio, Gilbert Studios, which was founded by his father, Nathan Gittelmacher, in 1922.

“I ended up in the early years learning to print [photos] and work with glass plates, but [my father] realized early, if my son doesn’t learn to see light, he’ll go nowhere,” Gilbert, who started experimenting with natural light before colour photos came out, said at the exhibit launch.

“I would play with colour pieces of paper and have it reflect… in someone face. In the late ’40s… colour hit… it was a miracle.”

When he was still in school in the 1950s, Gilbert asked a local radio station if he could photograph the celebrities that the station interviewed and create postcards to sell. The first celebrity he photographed was singer Frank Sinatra. Since then, he has taken shots of hundreds of celebrities, and has donated many of his photos to the Ontario Jewish Archives, which organized the Market Gallery exhibit.

Taking photos of celebrities and political figures is a hobby for Gilbert, who relies on his reputation.

“Once you have that, it’s easy to get the rest. You say, ‘I’m going to be in Washington, I’m going to photograph an ambassador.’”

One of his more memorable subjects was Ben-Gurion, who visited Toronto in 1960.

Gilbert was tipped off by a Toronto rabbi.

“[He] said, ‘Al, get your damn camera and get to the Royal York [Hotel],’” Gilbert said. “When they opened the door and let me in, [I saw] there was a meeting going on... [Ben-Gurion said], ‘How many [shots] do you need to take?’ I said four, he said, ‘You can take five.’”

Looking around at his photos, Gilbert insisted that he has never been intimidated by his subjects.

“I’ve never been nervous to take a photo. I take charge,” Gilbert said. “I prefer doing portraits. It gives me the chance to work with people, to be able to control them, and it’s exciting.”

The “Facets of Fame” exhibit, which was organized by Ellen Scheinberg and Melinda Richter of the Ontario Jewish Archives, includes a section for prominent Torontonians and prominent Jewish Torontonians Paul Reichmann and Mel Lastman. The exhibit also has a section dedicated to family photos taken by his father.

For Scheinberg, the director of the Ontario Jewish Archives, these are some of her favourites.

“I love the Gilbert Studio photos from the ’20s and ’30s. His father had a sense of humour,” she said, using a photo of Gilbert’s mother in a pirate costume as an example. “It’s just so charming.”

For Esterita Rajsky, who visited the exhibit’s launch last week, the photos are more than just headshots.

“He captures expression. They’re not just pictures, it’s not just a still. They all look as though they’re pensive or laughing,” she said. “I think he’s a fine photographer.”

Link to article on the CJN website >>