It only takes one shot: a conversation with George Pimentel
Interview by Megan Keenan. Photos by Andy Vathis. Additional photos provided by George Pimentel.
When you walk into George Pimentel’s studio, you immediately find yourself surrounded by photos of Hollywood’s biggest stars, a situation that might have some visitors star struck … but not everyone.
Pimentel’s studio, once owned by his father, has been a part of the Parkdale community for almost 40 years, so while some stop and stare at the photo of Rihanna hanging in the front window, others walk right in to get their passport photos taken, something Pimentel describes as a beautiful contradiction, “I can have Hollywood, and then I can take the passport photo of a lady that used to come here when my Dad owned the place… it’s a beautiful thing.”
This statement alone shows you exactly the kind of person that Pimentel is – a man known as Canada’s top celebrity photographer, but someone who will come home early from the Cannes Film Festival for his son’s baseball tournament. Function got to sit down with Pimentel at his studio to talk about his time at Ryerson, the two words that he lives by, and the importance of artists following their own path.
“I couldn’t have done all of this without my Ryerson experience – it changed my life,” Pimentel says as he starts our conversation by reflecting on his days as a Ryerson student, “Don Snyder put together a dream team of professors. We had a variety of great minds coming together, and when I entered I was working at my father’s photo studio, I had no idea what I was getting into. When I applied, there was no other place to be; I got accepted, and suddenly I was learning art.”
He went on to talk about the diversity of the work being done in his year, the particularly out-there professor that every art student has encountered at some point during their education, and the popular Ryerson lecture series that brought in the artists that inspired him, like Robert Frank, Duane Michals, Eugene Smith, and Garry Winogrand. Then Pimentel had to face the question that all, or most, photography students fear: How do you do photography as a job?
“Where it started was the Toronto Film Festival,” Pimentel recalls, “I was a movie buff, my sister was into film, and she got me a ticket because Robert DeNiro was going to be in town for the premiere of Bronx Tale at the Elgin Theatre. I had no clue about the word ‘paparazzi’, no clue about celebrity photography, no clue about entertainment photography… I just had a ticket to the movie, I decided I’m going to bring my Hasselblad, and I’m going to go to the red carpet, as a fan, and I’m going to take a picture of DeNiro. When I got to the Elgin theatre, there were five photographers behind those little velvet ropes, and I had my camera, and the security pointed at me and said, ‘Media, over here’… they thought I was media just because I had a camera! I‘m with the five photographers, everybody is excited, a silver limousine pulls up and DeNiro walks out, I was totally star struck. I got one frame of him walking in to the theatre, it happened so quickly. When I was packing up, everybody else had gone in already because media photographers got to go in to shoot the intro. Then the agent brought DeNiro back out to take photos, and everybody else had left, and there I was. Bang. I was shaking. I went back to my darkroom, I printed it, and from there I said, ‘I’m doing this for the rest of my life, nobody is stopping me.’”
“I realized there’s common denominators that the teachers let you know about yourself, and I was good at speed, I was good at being fast,” Pimentel says, “There are two words that I live by, “one shot”, and it came through being brought up the third generation, understanding my grandfather’s glass plates. I admired his sense of direction, how he had to make it happen: as a portrait photographer back then there had to be a collaboration between your subject to obtain that one shot, there has to be a respect. All that stuff, that’s the type of photography I wanted to do. I wanted to be respected, I wanted to have a concept of “less is more”, and so it was all coming together. I wanted all of my energy, I love the 8×10, I love the old format, but I wanted to have that approach with the 2 ¼ . So, I remember going on assignments, I started getting small jobs, here and there, like at The Globe and Mail. A friend of mine couldn’t do the job, he recommended me, and I would shoot one frame, and I’d hand in the roll to the desk. The lab guy would see blank, just blank until he got to the end of the roll and he’d see one frame. He’d say, ‘you only got one shot’, and I’d ask, ‘Is it good?’ and he’d say ‘well, ya’ and boom, that was the shot they wanted to use.”
This is the work that Pimentel would do from 1993 up until 2002; he would be shooting weddings for his dad, but then would go to events and stand with the fans. It was during these years that he learned one of the most important aspects of his career as a celebrity photographer, “I realized I have to get there, everything was about getting there,” he explained, “I realized it wasn’t about the photography, it was about getting there, and then sure enough, everything snowballed.”
From there Pimentel describes for us the fear he used to have about showing his portfolio to editors because he thought they would steal his photos, a fear that would prove legitimate after one of his prints was actually stolen and he had to go into the office and demand it back, ultimately walking out as the publication’s exclusive staff photographer, “I wasn’t trying to be an asshole about it, I was just being passionate about it,” he says, “I ended up developing a relationship with her and I became her guy.”
He goes on to tell us all about how he came to be represented by WireImage, and eventually Getty Images who bought the company in 2007, how Jeff Vespa, co-founder of WireImage, found him at a film festival and asked him to join the company because he planned on taking over the world and he needed a “Canadian guy”; “so at that time,” Pimentel explains, “I was bobbing back and forth, going crazy, my anxiety was about how I could only go so far in Canada, and all of the photographers in LA, they’re shooting everyday doing events, premieres, award shows. I’m going, I want to be a celebrity photographer so bad, and it’s not enough here. So I would go to LA, andI would sleep on couches, and I would just roam around. I had no accreditation; I would stand with the fans. Mel Gibson would come out with his Oscar, boom, I believed it was about one shot; it was more exciting to meet a celebrity for five seconds than for five minutes. It had that energy, and the photography, it was just a document, just get them in front of you, be polite, take the photo.”
But that hectic, everyday life in Hollywood wasn’t what Pimentel wanted ultimately, and after a brief time of living in Los Angeles, he moved home to continue working in Canada and running his father’s studio; “I’ve got a good thing. Now my friends from LA come during the Toronto International Film Festival and they’re jealous. They’re like, ‘you’ve got it all here; this is a beautiful town. We’re working 24/7 on this, and it’s just draining.’ It’s beautiful to have this contradiction. I can be in Hollywood and then I can come back to the studio. It makes me motivated still, remember, less is more. It always came back to less is more. The whole notion of one shot, that’s what is was about, taking your energy and putting it all in, and transforming that to the subject so that they know you’re serious.”
When asked how he manages to balance his two lives as Hollywood George and society George back in Toronto, Pimentel makes it very clear what aspect of his life comes first: family.
“I have children. That, for me, is the most important thing. The beauty, I’ll tell you something that’s very important that you should put down. You know I thought about moving to Los Angeles, and I tried it, and I came right back. Thank God. Because the guys that are on my team out there, they’re doing it every day. They’re bored. They don’t appreciate it. Because I’m still in Canada, I don’t touch it every single day, I’m fresh, but do I want to spend a weekend away from my family? I’ve got hockey tournaments. I’ll tell you one thing, if you ever have a family, when you have a family, you put that in front of everything, that’s my life. My children and my family. There are times when people ask me to do crazy amazing assignments and I’m like, nope, I have a baseball tournament that weekend.”
Another aspect of Pimentel’s life that was very clear was having the opportunity to use his success for good, “I realized I have to give back, I have to help support the community. If you’re good at something, if you’re the top dog in your field, you have to give back. So, any time I can give back, I do. Through charity, through my photography services, I give back. And the world needs help, you know, and if I can do it on a small level with photography, it’s part of my business; it’s part of giving back and not expecting anything in return. If I can help people, the world needs help. So in hindsight, how do I balance? I just pick and choose.”
To end our day at his studio, Pimentel offered to give us a tour of his studio, where we saw the same darkroom he printed in while working for his father, and binders of negatives that held at least a twenty-year history of Hollywood’s elite members. We met the Studio Manager, Sam, who had worked for Pimentel’s father since he was 14, and we saw the basement that still holds all of Pimentel’s work from Ryerson, as well as his grandfather’s glass plates, but first we asked Pimentel if he had any advice for today’s emerging artists that might want to follow in his footsteps:
“You know, when I talk to the people who come in to my world, students and what not, I have these talks with them, and then they want to be me, and I say you’re fired cause you’re an idiot. They’re like, ‘what do you mean?’ You have to be yourself. God made you here to be yourself. Find your own way. This is my way. This all came to me. I worked for this. It’s too easy for somebody to say I’m going to be you and I’m going to follow your path, and I know exactly your journey. That’s not your journey. Everybody has his or her own journey. That’s a fact. There’s nothing wrong with being inspired. I’ve talked to Muhammad Ali, I’ve talked to great people, and I thrive off of it. But be yourself. Take your drive, take your passion and calculate it. Don’t be me. Nobody can be me. Nobody can be you. Be yourself. Drive. You do something long enough, trust me, you’ll get discovered and opportunities will be created.”
After our interview with George, we asked if he could share some of his images with us, in return he opened the vault and provided images that he thought best showed the span of his career. Below you will find photographs his grandfather took, photos from the early stages at the studio (before Ryerson) with his father and mother, images that show his access at events, as well as his personal celebrity “one shot” style photographs (including the infamous Robert DeNiro shot).