New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 19 April 30 to May 6, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Finding the Human Face
Chim
We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933–1956
Ed Barnas

Photo by Chim . Source: icp.org
Chim, "Children playing on Omaha Beach, Normandy, France" 1947.
The current show at ICP offers a comprehensive retrospective of David Seymour’s work, incorporating over 150 photographs and archival publications along with recently discovered material. A quiet but seminal figure in the history of modern photojournalism, Seymour was somewhat overshadowed by his colleagues Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Yet his work in the 1930’s for the French leftist magazine Regards helped define the role of the “photoreporter” in the early days of the picture press, and later, in the late 1940’s, he was a co-founder of Magnum and a prominent figure in post-war photojournalism.

Born in Warsaw in 1911, Dawid Szymin had planned to enter publishing, the family business, and studied book design in Leipzig before continuing his studies at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1931. Given the economic turmoil of that time, he turned to freelance photography to support himself in 1933. As his surname was problematic for French-speakers, he adopted the shortened form, Chim as his byline.

In the early work from the 1930’s we can see well known images of the rise of the Popular Front in France and the turmoil of the Spanish Civil War (many photos familiar from the Mexican Suitcase show), intermixed with more mundane coverage of Breton fishermen, and Catholic rituals, and strikes. The influence of his training in design (and of Moholy-Nagy, who taught in Leipzig) is evident in his use of diagonals and the shifting point of view from the masses to the individual in his news coverage. His images of children display a humanistic empathy and his work exhibits a fine eye for the telling detail (the nursing mother in the crowd, a wrecked typewriter in the rubble). The prints from this period are complemented by contemporary publications showing how these images actually reached the public. A particularly effective display is the grid of thirty-five Regards covers showing the broad range of his work (and the selling power of his byline). Aware of the political realities of being a Jew, a foreigner, and a leftist in Paris at the end of the decade, in 1939 Chim used the opportunity to leave Europe by documenting a voyage to Mexico of Spanish refugees. Eventually, he moved on to New York where he reconnected with Robert Capa.

Chim became a naturalized US citizen, taking the name David Seymour. Unlike Capa, who continued his photojournalistic career during the war, Seymour enlisted in the US Army and interpreted aerial reconnaissance photos in England during the conflict. A vitrine with a handmade photo book he made for his recon unit as well as a small selection of snapshot prints are all that appear in the exhibit from this period. The prints, unpeopled, show his strong sense of design.

Photo by Chim . Source: icp.org
Woman nursing a baby at a land reform meeting, near Badajoz, Extremadura, Spain" 1936.
Seymour relaunched his photojournalistic career in 1947. Aside from co-founding Magnum Photos, he took on a major assignment for This Week magazine entitled “We Went Back”, documenting the state of Europe two years after the end of hostilities. Despite the ruin and political turmoil, Seymour continued to find the human face of the story. Particularly striking is the image of children playing on Omaha Beach in the shadow of a wrecked landing craft (a photo that the art designer flopped to work better on the magazine’s cover!). Seymour’s empathy for children is especially evident in the images from the UNESCO Children of Europe project (including the well-known photo of Tereska at the chalkboard). His eye for the telling detail is still clear in the photos from this period, especially in those in Italy (an adult learning to write, a snake on a religious statue) and his documentation of settlers in a newly independent Israel (interestingly enough, some of the émigrés pictured were Italian converts to Judaism). Introduced to Ingrid Bergman by Capa, Seymour engaged in a bit of celebrity photography to help support Magnum. Several of these images stand the test of time (Bernard Berensen amidst Roman statuary) while others are just more about the celebrity (Avedon and Astaire on the set of Funny Face).

Unlike Capa, Seymour was not really a front-line war photographer. Yet, when the Suez Crisis loomed in 1956, he took the assignment on behalf of Magnum – and was killed three days after the cease-fire. Published as part of his obituary, his photos of the conflict’s impact on the people of Port Said form the end of the exhibit.

The pairing of concurrent comprehensive retrospectives of Seymour and Vishniac at ICP offers a great opportunity to compare the work of the two men. Both are Eastern European Jews. Seymour, younger by over a decade, was just starting out in the 30’s and used his camera to support himself. Vishniac was already a family man, well established, for whom photography was a pastime. Seymour lived in a turbulent but democratic France and photographed political and civil unrest for leftist publications. Vishniac lived in Germany during the rise in Nazism and photographed primarily in Eastern Europe on assignment for Jewish philanthropic agencies. While Seymour photographed more of the masses, both had an eye for the individual and sought, through their photography, to raise awareness of their plight - and to bring about some relief – whether through political action or philanthropic support.

Chim
We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933–1956


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