Nathan Gittelmacher, born in Kiev, Ukraine, moved to Toronto in 1921. Nathan was a trained photographer who learned his craft in Europe and, consequently, was able to secure a job at Empire Studios upon his arrival in Toronto. In 1922, Gittelmacher opened his own business, Elite Studios, at 513 Queen Street West. The following year, Elite Studios was relocated to a new building on the same street. At first, Nathan serviced a largely Jewish clientele, photographing weddings, bar mitzvahs, and Jewish community events across Toronto.
During the early 1940s, the family legally changed their name from Gittelmacher to Gilbert and subsequently altered the name of the business to Gilbert Studios. Nathan and his wife, Nina, had four children: Louis, Al, Jack, and Ruth. During his career, Nathan became known as one of the finest photographic retouchers in the business. The children, and in particular Al, assisted their father with some of the retouching work. Al started working in the family business when he was nineteen years old and eventually assumed control upon his father's retirement. After Nathan moved to the United States, the business thrived under Al’s leadership. In order to accommodate his growing clientele, Al moved the studio to Eglinton Avenue and later to 170 Davenport Road, where it is situated today.
Al’s subjects range from civic leaders and local entrepreneurs to jazz musicians and world leaders. Al was able to capture the unique personalities of the subjects he photographs, contributing to his great success as a photographer. Over the years, he also made a name for himself through his use of innovative photographic techniques and his experimental use of natural light. Al even made the switch to digital cameras and started relying on the Olympus E-3.
Gilbert Studios has been in business now for over ninety years. During that time, the Gilberts have photographed a significant number of portraits and simchas that have taken place within the Toronto Jewish community. However, Al’s clientele expanded over the years to include people of every faith—politicians, religious leaders, CEOs, and philanthropists.
Al won many competitions, awards, and accolades. He was a three-time recipient of the prestigious Professional Photographers of Canada (PPOC) photographer of the year award. He was also named a Fellow of the photographic societies in Canada, Britain, and the United States. Al was also the first recipient of the Yousuf Karsh award (Karsh was an individual who inspired him). In 1990, he was recognized for his contribution to the nation as an artist with the Order of Canada award. Finally, in 2007, he was awarded the Professional Photographers of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Al Gilbert died in 2019.