Close to history

70 years ago the likes of Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour got together to found a photography cooperative that quickly took on global iconic status.

Independence Park, Tel Aviv, 1952. (photo credit: DAVID SEYMOUR)
Independence Park, Tel Aviv, 1952.
(photo credit: DAVID SEYMOUR)
Most people who know anything about photojournalism have heard the name Magnum. True, there is an ice cream of that name, but 70 years ago the likes of Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, George Rodger and David “Chim” Seymour got together to found a photography cooperative that quickly took on global iconic status. It is still held in high esteem, and even has an Israeli member, Israel Prize laureate Micha Bar- Am, who came on board almost half a century ago.
While Capa, who first came to international notice following his coverage of the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, became known for his coverage of military confrontations, Seymour generally eschewed documentation of violence, even though he, too, covered aspects of the war in Spain. What he did capture, and with great delicacy and poignancy, was the aftermath of hostilities in different spots around the world.
Examples of that humanist approach can be seen in abundance, in the “Capturing History: The Photography of Chim” exhibition, which is currently on display at Beit Hatfutsot on the Tel Aviv University campus, produced by the museum’s chief curator, Dr. Orit Shaham Gover, and curated by Asaf Galay.
Looking at the A Woman in Port Said after Israeli Bombing print, taken on October 29, 1956, less than a fortnight before Seymour’s tragic death, you immediately get the pathos of the situation. The Egyptian woman does not seem to be unduly distressed by the devastation around her, and appears to be almost sauntering past the rubble, as she carries a nicely padded chair aloft.
One of the motives for founding Magnum was, indeed, to document the way things panned out after World War II – how the countries most affected by the destruction shook themselves free of six years of death and all kinds of unspeakable horrors. Seymour fit the bill perfectly. What, for instance, could possibly be more poignant, more evocative of the “life goes on” ethos than his delightful emotive shot of Children Playing among the Wreckage of the D-Day Invasion? The picture was taken in Normandy, France, in 1947, which less than three years earlier had been the scene of an epic bloody clash between hundreds of thousands of soldiers. The blissful innocence of four infants, engaged in simple beach play would make for a nice, standard holiday snap. But the image of the youngsters in question features the hulking, rusting presence of the semi-submerged remains of a naval craft. All told, the Chim display takes in over 100 photographs including, intriguingly, color prints of the early years of the State of Israel.
For Ben Schneiderman and Helen Sarid, Seymour is not just a talented and pioneering photographer, he was also Oncle Didek. Seymour was born in 1911 in Warsaw, as Dawid Szymin. His moniker is an abbreviation of his original surname. His sister, Eileen, was the siblings’ mother, although as the older by 10 years, Sarid’s recollections of Seymour are far more vivid than Schneiderman’s. She recalls, for example, visiting her beloved uncle in Rome, together with Eileen, in 1954. Seymour, single and childless, was a sort of godfather to Sarid, who was a high-school student at the time. Oncle Didek promised that the two of them would get together after she graduated, to discuss her plans for the future. Sadly, that never happened. Seymour was tragically killed by an Egyptian machine gunner in 1956, four days after the cease-fire of the Sinai Campaign came into effect. He had been sent by Newsweek to cover a prisoner exchange.
“When Chim was killed near Port Said, I felt as if my future had died with him,” says Sarid.
Seymour was just 44 years old at the time, but thankfully, he left his family and the world a treasure trove of images that run the gamut of human experience and emotion – not to mention some pretty significant moments in the 20th century, too.
But it is his gentler, more intimate, view of the world about him that set Seymour apart. Take, for example, his alluring Young Woman Preparing for Sentry Duty portrait, taken here in 1952. The slightly windswept and somewhat world weary – but clearly content – character has a firm hand on the strap of the rifle slung over her shoulder, but this is not the stuff of iconic documentation. There is no staged feeling in the work, or more than a subtle whiff of idealism. This is just a girl setting off to ensure her comrades in the pioneering endeavor can sleep soundly. The frame also features the blurred shapes of a couple of single-story houses where, one presumes, the young woman’s fellow kibbutzniks are about to hit the sack. It adds an endearing street-level context to the storyline.
It is a moot point, but Seymour’s empathy for his subjects may have been informed by his firsthand knowledge of human suffering. In 1939 he accompanied a boatload of Loyalist refugees from Spain, en route to Mexico. From there he continued to New York and he was still in the Big Apple when World War II broke out. His parents and older sister perished in the Holocaust.
That may have informed his photographic treatment of children. One of his best known works, Tereska, is emotive in the extreme. The picture shows a clearly disturbed young girl drawing a frenzied version of what she calls home. It was taken in 1948, and Tereska had spent the first years of her life in a concentration camp. There is no “I” dotting or “T” crossing here. None needed.
Empathy and compassion course through Chim’s work. His group shot of youngsters at a reformatory in Naples offers us a nonjudgmental view of children who have fallen foul of the law who, clearly, would be much better off playing out in the street. And I defy anyone to look at Seymour’s print of a baby trying to prize a few crumbs out of a loaf of bread in a DP camp in Vienna and not, at the very least, feel a lump in their throat. Seymour does not intentionally go for our heartstrings, he just snaps what he sees.
There are lighter moments in the Seymour oeuvre, too. During his visit to the Austrian displaced person’s facility, he photographed a young girl holding a homemade doll and comically screwing up her face. Other works likely to raise a smile, if not a laugh, include his 1949 picture of Vatican City seminary students playing volleyball.
Seymour was not averse to snapping the odd celebrity either, but always in his inimitable seemingly off-thecuff manner. His sitters all appear to be perfectly at ease with the lens pointed at them, with the roll call of the rich and famous including Kirk Douglas, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Ingrid Bergman and Pablo Picasso.
Chim made repeated visits to this part of the world too, and captured seminal vignettes in the early 1950s, including the joyous arrival of new olim disembarking at Haifa Port, and an impromptu bout of alfresco hora dancing in the Hula Valley in the Upper Galilee. The shot of the first baby born on Moshav Alma, in the Galilee Panhandle, proudly held aloft by its beaming dad, with a bunch of modestly proportioned houses and rock-strewn soil for a backdrop, conveys the essence of Zionist pioneering story without gratuitous fanfare. A young woman smiling as she sifts through freshly picked cucumbers, also comfortably transmits the zeitgeist.
The frame of a 1952 wedding with the huppa canopy kept up by a brace of rifles and pitchforks also puts you in the picture of the incipient state, and Seymour’s surreptitious 1954 shot of a group of women reciting the tashlich prayer on Tel Aviv beach also speaks volumes.
The color photos of new housing near Haifa in 1952 are a rare polychromic treat that help to stretch the boundaries of our monochrome collective recollections of Israel’s yesteryear. Seymour was also on hand to take a bird’s eye view picture of the 1952 Independence Day parade in Tel Aviv, and his images of a religious Yemenite welder, experimental agricultural activities at Beer Ora in the Arava, and a kova tembel-behatted shepherd leaning nonchalantly on his crook are definitively charming.
“We want to preserve the work of our uncle,” says Schneiderman. “It is the 70th anniversary of Magnum, which Chim helped to found, so this exhibit is part of those celebrations.”
Schneiderman is, naturally, keenly aware of his Oncle Didek’s professional tenet.
“Capa rightfully earned the title of the world’s greatest war photographer, and he said that if your photos aren’t good enough you’re not close enough. And Chim would have said that if your photographs aren’t good enough you’re not close enough, emotionally.”
Capturing History: The Photography of Chim closes on January 31, 2018. For more information: