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Al Gilbert’s Life Behind the Lens
City of Toronto
By Christopher Jones
July 1, 2010
Al Gilbert probably won’t think much of my point-and-shoot portrait of him and his lovely wife Gail, who joined us for our interview Tuesday at the Market Gallery. Gilbert, 88, walked me through the show, a survey of images from his lifetime as one of Toronto’s most prominent portrait photographers.
After talking for more than an hour it was clear that Gilbert believes a portraitist’s skill lies in how he or she composes and lights a shot: “Photojournalism isn’t photography,” he says, a little dismissively, “you’re not setting up the shot, you’re just recording what you see.”
He might sound like a curmudgeon but Gilbert is anything but; he was gracious and funny as he walked me down memory lane, reliving the shoots that resulted in these images of Frank Sinatra, Golda Meir, Ed Mirvish, Oscar Peterson, John Deifenbaker, Robertson Davies, even world famous Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh.
“Was it intimidating shooting Karsh?” I ask.
“Not a bit,” says Gilbert. “When you’ve shot everybody from the Pope on down, what’s another photographer?”
“Al could teach Karsh about light,” says Gail proudly.
Gilbert liked Karsh: “He was a great individual,” he says. “He never turned anybody away; if you were a student who wanted to meet him, he had time for you. My dad did retouching for Karsh.”
Gilbert’s father, Nathan, arrived in Canada from Ukraine in 1921 and set up his first photography studio at Queen and Bathurst Streets in 1922. Young Al worked with his dad who insisted that if his son was going to follow in the family business he had to be properly trained. Gilbert Senior enrolled the lad in an art program at Central Technical School, “because he wanted me to see light,” recalls Al.
The images on show at Market Gallery through September 11 are merely the tip of the Gilbert iceberg, a selection of works donated to the Ontario Jewish Archives, the organization that pulled the show together. Gilbert says the goal was to present a cross-section of local, national and international figures but also to reflect Toronto’s diversity. Pictured left is Gilbert’s 1964 portrait of Moe Koffman, the cigar in the dog’s mouth was the flutist’s idea.
Hearing Gilbert reminisce about the City’s history is fascinating. He recalls helping bankroll Allan Lamport’s 1952 run for mayor because the politician vowed to strike down the city’s “blue laws”, rules that prohibited any kind of business, or pleasure for that matter, on a Sunday.
“My father did Jewish weddings, which were on Sundays so a policeman would stand outside his door and every time he opened the door there was a fine of $2.50. We were arrested for playing baseball in a park on a Sunday, you could not even go into a public park on a Sunday.”
Gilbert describes how he took a lengthy time-lapse film of the construction of City Hall in the early 1960s with a camera mounted in the window of his brother’s office on Richmond Street. “Do you mean Queen Street?” I ask, “because Richmond Street doesn’t have a view of City Hall.”
“It did then,” says Gilbert. “Queen Street was demolished at that time, even parts of Chinatown, practically the whole area was razed.”
As we tour the show, I press Gilbert to single out his favourite shot and he doesn’t hem or haw for long before leading me to a picture of Dr. Charles Best (above left), the Nobel Prize-winning, co-discoverer of insulin. “Shooting him was a big deal,” remembers the photographer, his voice rich with respect. “He wasn’t some local mayor, he was a man of the world, known all over the globe for the great work he did. It was the same as doing the Pope. And when I went in to meet him I was very surprised because he was sitting in a chair looking like a farmer with a stick of wheat in his mouth. He was humble and relaxed, just an ordinary grandfather. I didn’t even bother to light him, just used the window light.”
Later, we make a trip up to Gilbert’s studio on Davenport Road where he poses for me before showing me some of the fine work not included in the Market Gallery show. As a kid, Gilbert started out using glass plates and decades later he was one of the first professional photographers to make the jump to digital in 1990.
In 1989 Gilbert was named to the Order of Canada and in 2007 he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award of the Professional Photographers of America, the only Canadian ever to be so honoured.
For Gilbert the recognition is welcome but he seems proudest of all of his role as a father and especially as a husband to Gail for the past 66 years. After more than half a century the couple is clearly still smitten and that’s something I think I have captured in my amateur’s snapshot.