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


Friday 27 March 2009

Silver lining

Beauty contestants, Southport, UK, 1967 - photograph by Tony Ray-Jones

They say that every dark cloud has a silver lining ,and that has certainly been the case for me. Looking around the web as i recover from this injured back, i rediscovered a wonderful British documentary photographer that I'd completely forgotten about. His name is Tony Ray-Jones.

I first came across his work in a photography magazine way back in 1988 but sadly he was forgotten during my years studying photography. I still find it hard to understand why photographers such as Tony Ray-Jones are not studied more by photography students. In the last two years I've come across the work of three photographers - Roman Vishniac, Peter Korniss and Tony Ray-Jones - who were never mentioned or discussed in any of the documentary photography lectures i attended. I suppose that you can only study so many photographers during your time on a course, but these three image makers really did create important ground breaking work - the type of work that should be seen, studied and talked about.

In Tony Ray-Jones's case it may be his early death that hindered his work from becoming more prominent than other photographers of his generation. The photographer died at the young age of 30 on 13th march 1972 - just 8 days before i was born in fact. He worked extensively but his best images were taken in the USA and UK. His work during the sixties and early seventies captured Britain in the transition from old world to new. The last vestiges of empire and the old life were fading fast. Modern Britain was emerging and was already starting to loose some of its own unique distinctive identity. Many of the photographs show the British for the mad and/or slightly eccentric characters that they actually were/are. Others reflect a darker side but most retain an element of humour.

A selection of terrific Tony Ray-Jones images can be found HERE. Expect to see a photographer profile post about Ray-Jones on the blog in late April.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Made in Cley

Cley-next-the-sea, Norfolk, UK

Cley-next-the-sea is a lovely village located located on the north Norfolk coast. It's a fantastic place to visit but you have to have nerves of steel if you are driving through. The A149 main coast road weaves its way through Cley's narrow main street - dodging opposing traffic, wandering pedestrians and numeorus parked cars makes the task of navigating through the village all the more adventurous.

One of the main attractions of Cley is the mill. Cley Mill has been converted into a guesthouse and offers a whole range of services for wedding, parties and bed and breakfast. Another impressive aspect of Cley is the range of shops it has, - everything from bookshops to fine art. Made in Cley is one such art shop established by a collective of artists twenty five years ago.

Tuesday 24 March 2009

Torn film

The war memorial in York - late Summer 2008

It was the quiet tearing sound that alarmed me. I was attempting to put a roll of 120 film onto a developing reel when it all went horribly wrong. The film tore into two halves, one slightly longer than the other. The only solution was to load the first strip and then attempt to put the second strip on. Fortunately this idea worked and both films developed in the tank as normal but it was a close call.

I've never had a roll of film rip on me. Never. It's a remarkably tough material and can withstand all sorts of handling and abuse. The only reason that i can come up with is that the film was damaged during manufacture. It was this very film that jammed in my Bronica SQi film back while out shooting - a highly unusual situation that's never happened before or since. I suppose i'll never know why.

Sunday 22 March 2009

Out for the count

The market clocktower in Chesterfield, Derbyshire, UK

It started as a lovely day. It was sunny and warm outside, a typical spring day, and i was looking forward to a walk out. It was also my birthday. Everything was going fine until i got up to switch my desktop computer on to access my emails.

PAIN! Lots of it too. I must have twisted as i got up and something somewhere in the lower area of my back did not like it one little bit. All that heavy camera gear i carry and it's an email that puts me out of action! So i ended up spending most of yesterday on my back, barely able to move, thinking 'what a great 37th birthday this is'!

The back is feeling better today. It's sensitive, even painful at times but i can move about. I no longer walk like a cross between John Wayne and Quasimodo but I'll confine myself to easy duties for a few days - just to make sure. Certainly no running, heavy lifting or long car journeys for me this week.

As for photography news, well i edited the first video podcast ready for release next month. It looks pretty good so far. I'm just adding a few finishing touches this week. The website is also undergoing some development to add a few new pages and features. The layout idea for the portfolio has also been finalised. Lots of work to do in the next few weeks.

Wednesday 18 March 2009

Reflected recession

A homeless resident of a tent city in Sacramento, California, USA - Image by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The current economic situation is hardly ever out of the news. Each day seems to bring more and more bad news. It's in times like these that the role of the photographer becomes critical. Statistics tell us nothing about the individuals who make up those numbers given out by the media and government agencies.

The Big Picture blog has a number of images that reflect the social changes the economic downturn has delivered upon us all. Most of the images are of mass groups - people looking for work, unused freight containers, 57,000 unsold Dodge SUV's and rows of reclaimed houses. A simple photograph of a huge storage area of unused newspaper racks in San Francisco tells the sad story of the near terminal state of the newspaper market in America.

The recession is taking hold elsewhere in the world but it must be remembered that it won't last forever. It will take time, lots of hard work and stupid amounts of money but this 'great recession' will pass.

Friday 13 March 2009

Animal magic

African elephants in Amboseli National Park, Kenya - Image by Federico Veronesi.

I love wildlife photography and i certainly have a LOT of respect for wildlife photographers. It's not an easy task getting a superb image of an animal in the wild. It takes cunning, lots of planning and the right sort of cameras and lenses to get great photos... oh and a massive amount of waiting.

A number of great wildlife images have been posted on the excellent 'The year in pictures' photoblog. This shot by Frederico Veronesi caught my eye but other fantastic photographs of wildlife are also featured including a superb shot of a gathering of bald eagles in Alaska.

These great images can be found at:

Sunday 8 March 2009

Proper photographer

Tombstone in All Saints Church, Newcastle Upon Tyne, UK

A number of comments have made me think this weekend. It concerns shooting film and the various responses that I've come across have made me think of a statement i heard last summer. Last year i was walking along at Blakeney in Norfolk when a man stopped and asked me if i was shooting film. I replied yes and we had a good chat for about ten minutes about cameras and the gentleman's past interest in photography. Just before we parted he said ' It's nice to see a proper photographer'.

An unusual term. Proper photographer. What is that? If you use digital are you an improper photographer? It was meant as a compliment i know but i've had others state similar thoughts. A twitter user recently said that he was impressed that i used film. Why? It's not difficult and i have no trouble getting materials. Film is more forgiving of exposure mistakes than its digital counterpart. Digital has a similar narrow exposure tolerance to transparency film so in many respects digital is harder to shoot than film. Maybe its the physical process of taking an image that they refer too.

Film is here to stay for the time being. It will go but it'll take time before it dies out. Until then i'll continue to shoot film because it offers an interesting alternative to digital. Both mediums have their strengths and weaknesses. I'll continue to use and love both!

Thursday 5 March 2009

Making tracks

Awaiting the return of a boat - Sea Palling, Norfolk, UK

Sea Palling is a small seaside resort located on the Norfolk coast about 20 miles north east of Norwich. It's a small seaside village that's popular with tourists who stay on the static caravan sites situated in the village. The beach, and nearly two miles of coastline around Sea Palling, are protected from the sea by a series of huge stone sea breaks; the end of one can be seen in the above photograph.

Tuesday 3 March 2009

Warmer waters

Thinking lifeguard - Cromer, Norfolk, July 2008

Baywatch has got a lot to answer for. The popular TV show of the 1990's must have helped recruit new people to the service, though for the British beach lifeguard much of the glamour is lost due to the 'lovely' UK summer weather. Venice beach this ain't!

It was a quick photo taken using my Bronica SQAi 6x6 camera. I was walking back along the seafront and there was the young lady just lost in thought. Cromer's beach was empty so she had no one to keep an eye on. Maybe she was thinking of warmer clear blue waters and golden beaches.