Tuesday, 31 March 2009

Profile: David 'Chim' Seymour

Loyalist pilots from a Republican airbase resting near their aircraft, Spain, 1936 - Image by David Seymour

David 'Chim' Seymour can arguably be regarded as the least well known of the four main Magnum founders and yet his quiet and calming role within Magnum was critical for steering the agency to success. His life, like many of his generation, was altered drastically by World war II and his photographic work during the post war period attempted to understand the changes that had taken place in Europe. His death in 1956 during the height of the Suez crisis was a massive blow for the Magnum agency still recovering from the loss of Robert Capa two years earlier.

David 'Chim' Seymour' was actually born David Syzmin in Warsaw, Poland on 20th November 1911. He grew up in a wealthy and cultured family who ran a successful Yiddish publishing company. Chim had a good education where he developed a passion and interest for music. Originally he had wanted to become a concert pianist but gave it up when he realised that he didn't have perfect pitch. Encouraged by his father, Chim went to Leipzig to study printing and graphic arts with the aim, no doubt, of following his father into the family business. After a restless period at Leipzig, Chim was given permission from his father to move to the Sorbonne in Paris to study advanced chemistry and physics. Shortly after his arrival he found out that his father's business was suffering due to the wave of anti-semitism sweeping Poland. Chim's monthly allowance could no longer be afforded by his family, and determined to stay in Paris, he decided to earn money through photography. A family friend owned a Paris based photo agency called Photo-Rap and lent him a 35mm camera. With no experience of taking images, Chim started to experiment and he gradually built up his photograph taking skills. His first contact sheets were impressive and so Chim's images via the Photo-Rap agency were soon sold to newspapers and magazines.

David 'Chim' Seymour took an interest in social and political problems of the day and used his camera to document workers and the terrible conditions that they lived and worked in. In March 1934 his work ended up in Regards, a magazine that often featured items about social inequality and the plight of workers. This led to regular assignments for Regards and through this work he was invited to join a group of left wing writers and photographers. It was at one of those meetings that he met Henri Cartier-Bresson. Both became firm friends but it was not until a few months later that Chim would be invited by Cartier-Bresson to meet Robert Capa. Work started to come in for the photographers as the political unrest boiled onto the street. Chim wrote in letters home ' Socially, I am moving in new circles, away from the polish gang. I am among more photographers, thinking people, interested in the same problems as myself. We are trying to arrange some sort of association of revolutionary-minded photographers'. That revolutionary thinking would help create Magnum some ten years later.

During the Spanish civil war , Chim covered the conflict looking at the victims of war - the refugees suffering due to bombing by German and Italian pilots fighting for Franco. His photo essay of the aerial bombardment of Barcelona won Chim world wide recognition as a photo-journalist. In May 1939 he covered the final acts of the war including a voyage to Mexico by 1000 Republican refugees on the SS Sinai. From Mexico, Chim made his way to the United States where he set up a darkroom in New York on 42nd Street. The war interrupted and in 1942 Chim tried to enlist with the OSS, a forerunner of the CIA, thinking that his six languages would be useful. He was turned down but eventually entered the US Army as a photo interpreter. By the end of the war he would be a Lieutenant, a US citizen and known by the name David Robert Seymour. The only sign of his previous family name would be the nickname 'Chim' -derived from his old Szymin name which is pronounced 'Shimmin'. Sadly almost all of Chim's family disappeared in the holocaust. He would later learn that his mother and father were killed in the Warsaw ghetto in 1942.

The war separated Chim from his Friends Capa and Cartier-Bresson. It wasn't until the summer of 1944 during the liberation of Paris, that Chim was able to meet up with his friends again. The end of the war saw Chim head back to New York to reopen his darkroom. Better known in Europe than the USA, he found few opportunities for work until his friend Henri Cartier-Bresson arrived to attend his 'posthumous' exhibition at the museum of art. By the spring of 1947 the first signs of the Magnum photo agency were starting to appear and by May of that year Magnum had indeed been launched. The photographers divided the world up - Cartier-Bresson took Asia, George Rodger took the Middle East and Africa, and Chim took Europe. Capa would work wherever he liked. For the next few years David Seymour toured Europe photographing the refugees. Children scarred emotionally and physically by war were just one of his topics. The images are wonderfully affectionate and compassionate photographs. During the final years of his life, Chim covered more stories all over Europe but also contrasted that work with portraits of celebrities. It was the Suez crisis in 1956 that finally took David 'Chim' Seymour's life. Driving fast down a road in a Jeep, he and a Paris Match photographer called Jean Roy were caught in machine gun fire from an Egyptian army outpost. They were both killed instantly.

Chim's friend Bill Richardson of the New York Post wrote 'Chim was the quietest and gentlest of men, whose enormous compassion translated itself through the camera lens into some of the most human and touching pictures of our generation'.


All Images by David 'Chim' Seymour

  • Top left - David 'Chim' Seymour
  • Top right - Front Populaire Demonstration. Paris, 1936
  • Middle left - Woman at Land Distribution Meeting, Spain, 1936
  • Bottom right - Children Playing with a Broken Doll, Naples, Italy, 1948

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1 comment:

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