TIFF 2023 Pictures That Are Worth a Thousand Words (Photos)

Veteran photographer George Pimentel highlights the festival with a memorable carousel

Jessica Chastain, TIFF 2023
Photo by George Pimentel/Shutterstock

It’s just another day in the life of Jessica Chastain. The above photo suggests that the Oscar-winning actress is calm, cool and collected, safe in the eye of the storm that is the Toronto International Film Festival. A shot painstakingly orchestrated by a veteran photographer, the photo looks effortless and Chastain flawless, bringing Old Hollywood glamour to clamoring Canadian streets.

“I love photographing a woman with great fashion,” said George Pimentel, celebrity photographer. “There’s nothing wrong with photographing men, but a woman who has a great outfit is special. Jessica Chastain came out of her car and I let security know I wanted the streets to be cleared. I wanted her in the middle of the street with Toronto in the back.”

In reality, this is just another day in the life of the Pimentel. This year’s TIFF marks the Toronto native’s 30th year in the industry, which began at the very same festival with a photograph that he nabbed against all odds.

“I did my first celebrity photo in 1993 and at that time I was helping my father, who was a photographer. He had a little photo studio across the street from the church in Little Portugal in downtown Toronto,” said Pimentel. “I was helping photograph weddings and baptisms. From there, I continued to a school called Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University) and I came out with this eagerness to be a photographer. My peers at school were shooting for Vogue and National Geographic and I was scared. ‘What am I going to do with my life?’

“I grew up with movies, I was a huge fan. And I heard that Robert De Niro was going to be in town. Back then, there was no cell phones, I didn’t know anything about this business, but I got my black and white film, put it in my Hasselblad camera that I shot weddings with, and headed down to the Toronto Film Festival. Sure enough, there were five photographers behind the velvet rope and the security guard looked at me, somebody with a pretty expensive camera, and he said, ‘Media, over here.’ And that was it.”

“De Niro is going to come out, it’s for the movie ‘A Bronx Tale.’ He comes out and the flashbulbs start going off, security is in the way, fans are screaming and I was so starstruck. Then they took him back inside and all the credited photographers went in to get set up for the intro to the film,” Pimentel said. “But there was a miscommunication and they brought him back out with Chazz Palminteri, who wrote and starred in the movie and I had no idea who he was. So I asked him to get out of the way so I could get a picture of De Niro. And I thought, ‘This is what I want to do.’”

With all of that experience behind him, Pimentel is the perfect person to size up what this year’s strike-ridden festival has been like, particularly compared to previous years.

“I thought it was going to be much worse. There’s plenty of stars. We’ve had Viggo Mortensen, Dakota Johnson, Sean Penn, Willem Dafoe,” Pimentel said. “I’m making do with what I have and I’m giving a lot of directors exposure they deserve. I have to document the festival the way it is.”

At the same time, the relative normalcy of this year’s festival isn’t entirely surprising to the photographer.

“Every festival has its own identity. I’ve traveled from Cannes to Sundance to Venice. The Canadians here, we tend to be the nicest. There’s no screaming at celebrities. Fans here don’t want to make noise because someone’s doing an interview. Very polite,” Pimentel said. “But then you have the Cannes festival and that’s the complete opposite. That has high-end glamour, the steps, screaming at the top of your lungs. Cannes and the Met Gala, those are probably the most stressful red carpets out there. And you have Venice, which is very romantic. You’re renting a boat to get a shot of Clooney coming out of the Cipriani and it did make a great photo.”

When he’s working, particularly at festivals, Pimentel is always looking to get a particular kind of shot. “I grew up watching Old Hollywood, and Brad Pitt and George Clooney were like my James Deans. I love glamour and that’s how I wanted to photograph celebrities. To photograph and promote them at the same time.”

But it’s not just the known entities that Pimentel is looking to capture. Festivals provide an opportunity for photographers to become curators of artists. “I love the fact that festivals have all these up-and-comers and you can discover talent,” Pimentel said. “It’s my job to find out who’s who and try to support the system and, at the same time, document the festival for history.”

Of course, a lot has changed since Pimentel crashed TIFF with his camera in 1993. The industry has changed, technology has changed. So what does a person do to stand out in such a competitive field?

“Everyone’s got their cell phones and there’s mountains of content and millions and millions of photos taken. I love to go back to the old way, the black and white. I want my images to stand out from everyone else. That’s my strategy,” Pimentel said.

And yet, after 30 years there are still experiences that Pimentel can’t help but marvel at. Particularly when discussing his favorite shots from TIFF 2023.

“This year I was there for Sean Penn’s premiere and I’m very intimidated by him. As a photographer, I was scared, actually, from back in the ’80s in the Madonna days where you used to see him in, like, physical fights with photographers,” Pimentel said. “So it was a breath of fresh air to see Sean Penn come from behind the curtain with a full smile. There was no awkwardness. I’m such a fan of his work and he’s such a great actor. He falls in line with the DeNiros and the Pacinos for me.”

“Then again, one of the best moments was that I got to meet Paul Simon, who I’ve never photographed, despite me photographing celebrities for 30 years. The hardest question people ask me is, ‘Who haven’t you photographed?’ Well, Paul Simon is it,” Pimentel said.

“When you go back and think of what his journey has been, from Simon and Garfunkel to the man standing in front of me in this little green room, a dressing room in the backstage of a theater. I was pinching myself and he gave me access, he was comfortable with me, and I documented him and the director coming out on stage and getting a standing ovation. Just to document that is definitely a highlight of my career.”

Working as a historian, as someone doing his best to document a moment with style and truth, Pimentel sees himself not just an observer but, a fellow artist.

“I’ve photographed [Chastain] so many times at film festivals and she recognized me and so when I approached her and said, ‘This is what I want to do,’ we’re both collaborating. I’m directing her and I’m being really quick about it. You gotta be quick about it and that’s the whole thing with all my photos. They’re literally one frame. One shot. I line it up. I focus. They’re engaged with my camera. And I just love all the chaos behind it. And that’s what makes a good photo.”


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