Though he co-founded Magnum Photos with Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and George Rodger, and though – like them – he was one of the great documentary photographers of the 20th century, David ‘Chim’ Seymour is less famous than his colleagues. But this winter, a large retrospective in Amsterdam looks set to change all that.
Chim [pronounced “Shim’] acquired his nickname from his surname, because he was born Dawid Szymin in Warsaw, Poland, in 1911. His family was Jewish, and his parents were respected publishers of Yiddish and Hebrew Books; Chim and his parents left Warsaw for Odessa as World War One broke out in 1914, returning to Warsaw in 1919. Chim studied printing in Leipzig, then chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne in Paris, but got into photography while in France and started working as a freelance journalist in 1933. His first credited photograph was published in 1934 in the French communist magazine Regards.
Regards sent Chim to Spain to cover the Spanish Civil War in 1935, and published 25 of his stories on the conflict; the work he made in Spain from 1936-38, alongside Capa, helped him make his name. In 1939 he photographed Loyalist Spanish refugees on board the SS Sinaia to Mexico, and he was in New York City when World War Two broke out in Europe after Nazi Germany invaded Poland. He took the Anglicised name David Seymour and in 1940 enlisted in the US Army, serving as a photo interpreter; in 1942 he became a US citizen. His parents were killed by the Nazis.
In 1947 he set up Magnum Photos with Capa and Cartier-Bresson; in 1948 UNICEF – the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund – commissioned him to document children made refugees by World War Two. Chim travelled to Austria, Hungary, Italy, Poland, and Germany to photograph their plight, and also the surreal nature of life in immediate post-war Europe. In the 1950s he also became known for his shots of celebrities, who included Sophie Loren, Ingrid Bergman, Audrey Hepburn, Pablo Picasso, and Richard Avedon.
Chim became president of Magnum Photos in 1954, after Capa’s death; in 1956 he was killed, while driving to photograph and exchange of wounded soldiers at El Quantara, four days after the armistice of the 1956 Suez War. He died ten days before his 45th birthday.
The exhibition in Amsterdam is shown at the Jewish Historical Museum, but was curated by New York’s International Center for Photography, which showed it in 2013 under the name We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933—1956 by Chim. Chim once said that good photography was just down to “a little bit of luck and enough muscle to click the shutter”. Including more than 150 photographs plus about 100 magazines, books, albums, and documents, this show proves he brought more to it than just that.
Chim (David Seymour). Legendary Photojournalist is on show at the Jewish Historical Museum, Nieuwe Amstelstraat 1, 1011PL, Amsterdam until 10 March 2019 https://jck.nl/en/node/3607