Forging His Own Path While Honoring a Familial Legacy
For famed photographer, George Pimentel, taking pictures, is in his blood. His grandfather was the photographer of his small village in the Azores, a group of islands off the coast of Portugal. Pimentel’s father and uncles took up the mantle, immigrated to Canada, and became the first Portuguese photographers in their Toronto community. They quickly opened their studio in the heart of Toronto’s famed Kensington market. In 1975, they moved their studio to Dundas Street West, which is the building that Pimentel works out of to this day.
Pimentel’s family were no strangers in Toronto’s Portuguese community. While his uncles did most of the photography, his father ran the business side of things. Though his uncles were classic portrait photographers, they made their living by shooting weddings, Portuguese festivals, and communions – this is what the community wanted. They knew how to please their audience.
His siblings were involved in the family business as well. But as the youngest in the family, Pimentel was the last to pick up the camera. Citing his brother, Frank, as his teacher, his older sibling would take Pimentel along to weddings to act as an assistant. “I was a kid and didn’t really know what I wanted to get into. I just wanted to play with my friends,” explains Pimentel. It wasn’t until he realized how close the Portuguese community was, and how valuable photographs of cherished memories were to its members, that he truly understood the importance of his family’s work.
When Pimentel was 18 years old, he decided to attend Ryerson University, which at the time was a vocational college. Pimentel admits that he was by no means a scholar, but explains that “when I put my mind to something, I do it.” Although he was not admitted to Ryerson the first time he applied, nor the second, his tenacity paid off. By his third attempt, he was admitted to his desired choice of higher education institutions. During his time at Ryerson, Pimentel also apprenticed as a fashion photographer, as well as worked with Hudson Taylor, a well-known and exclusive wedding photographer. Between school, apprenticing, and helping with his father’s business, Pimentel worked seven days a week, barely making time for anything that wasn’t photography related. Pimentel cites this time in his life as one of the most significant as he learned self-expression, stylistic development, and personal self-discovery. Though he went through personal and stylistic phases, he finally found his unique approach to the art medium and was able to “speak through” his photos.
After graduating, Pimentel became a bit lost, “I had this vision, but what was I going to do with it?” he recalls. He started taking on personal projects, documenting his neighborhood, people on the street, etc., yet these projects, though enjoyable, could not pay the bills. However, Pimentel was about to get his big break. In 1993, Robert De Niro was in Toronto promoting A Bronx Tale at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF). A huge fan of the actor, Pimentel went down to the theater in hopes of catching a glimpse, and shot, of one of the most famed actors in the world. In 1993, TIFF was not the sensation it is today, it was still in its Naissance, there was no red carpet posing, so getting a photographer was much more difficult as celebrities walked into the theater. “So as De Niro walked in, he signed an autograph, and I yelled, ‘Bobby!’ He looked up, and I snapped a frame,” explains Pimentel of the brief, yet incredibly significant encounter. Pimentel continued to follow celebrities to events, asking to shoot a quick frame. It took him seven years of pounding the pavement and photographing celebrities for his first photo to be published. Now, movie stars ask for him by name and his photos are often reposted by the A-list celebrities on their social media.
Though he has photographed celebrities at all major festivals and events, TIFF, Sundance, Cannes, the Oscars, the Emmys, etc., Pimentel cites New York’s MET Gala as his favorite red carpet to shoot. “I’m privileged that I get invited back every year,” he says humbly, “but it’s probably the most grueling red carpet you can be at. You are screaming at the top of your lungs; everybody is in the way, security makes it hard to get [celebrities] to pose and look at you. It’s a huge task, but you make it work.” Although the MET Gala is his favorite event, his most memorable red carpet moment was shooting Lady Gaga at TIFF when she was promoting A Star is Born. “She took the direction,” he explains, “There was no publicist in the way. Her people told security to stay out of her way and let her do her thing with the photographer. This was a dream.”
Another reason celebrities are so drawn to Pimentel and his work is due to professionalism and respect for their boundaries. Unlike paparazzi that chase them down, drowning them in light flashes and inane questions while they leave Starbucks, Pimentel asks permission to take a photograph and is cognizant of their time and personal space. “I was never into making money off of them. I never wanted them to look bad. I was a fan. I worshipped them on the screen, and I wanted them to be glamorous,” he explains. With the influx of camera phones and social media, the need for paparazzi is dwindling, and Pimentel, for one, could not be happier. “[Paparazzi’s] background is money and sensationalism. That’s their motivation. I cannot relate to it. It’s greed. If there’s money to be made, there is always somebody there to do it.” Now celebrities are taking ownership of their media presence through Instagram and Twitter. They reach their fans directly through social media, and sell their photos directly to magazines, cutting out the paparazzo middle man.
Pimentel and his team take on over 500 events a year, and there are no signs of them slowing down anytime soon. The renowned photographer lists his family as a huge influence, not only for their keen artistic eyes but for the work ethic they instilled in him from a young age. His two heroes are his grandfather, the pioneer, and his father, the man who gave him the freedom to pursue any passion he so chose – that love just so happened to be the family business. Pimentel is very proud of his heritage and looks back at obstacles he has had to overcome as a badge of honor. He has worked incredibly hard to get to where he is now, and he is truly appreciative of the journey that got him here.