CHIM: A web biography of David Seymour  


Chim & Cartier-Bresson, Paris, 1938

Copyright 1998 David Seymour Estate

 By Judith Friedberg, 1974, Grossman Publishers, New York

David Seymour - "Chim" - A Man of Peace

Born Warsaw 1911 : Died Suez 1956

Between these two dates and places Chim's short forty-five-year span of life was typical of his age, of the turbulent twentieth century. A gentle man who abhorred violence, Chim lived most of his life amidst war and its aftermath, and died violently without ever really finding the peace he sought.

At his birth Chim was Russian, thanks to the Czar's overlordship of his native Poland. At his death he was an American citizen. But in between he had followed the trail of so many Central Europeans of his generation -- to Germany, France, Spain, America, and then Europe again during and after the Second World War. Chim could have been called truly a citizen of the world, for he was at home in any great city -- and many of the villages -- from New York to Jerusalem.

Born in Warsaw, son of Benjamin Szymin, a Yiddish publisher, Chim (his nickname came from the pronunciation of his family name) experienced the first war's privations, the upheavals of the Russian Revolution, and the political and military birth pangs of the Polish Republic before he was ten.

Chim first studied to be a concert pianist, but gave it up when he found that he lacked the ear of a great musician. In his late teens he was sent to Leipzig to study printing, art, and photography. Then he went on to Paris to finish his education at the Sorbonne.

 Two blows in the early thirties -- the rise of Hitler and the world depression -- forced him from the carefree life of a student. Faced with the realities of politics and economics, he turned to earning a living in Paris. It was a time of great political upheaval and turbulence. The Popular Front was emerging and Paris was torn between the manifestations of the Left and the Right. Chim combined his publishing background, an interest in political affairs, and a knowledge of photography and emerged as a photojournalist, one of a tiny group of pioneers in a new field. Among his closest friends and photographic colleages were the Hungarian Robert Capa and the Frenchman Henri Cartier-Bresson, with whom he joined a decade later to found Magnum Photos, the worldwide cooperative of photo journalists.


Chim and Robert Capa by Cartier-Bresson

Discussing Magnum business, Paris, 1952

Copyright 1998 David Seymour Estate

Passionately liberal and anti-fascist, Chim welcomed a chance to go to Spain as a photographer when the Civil War erupted. His pictures of Barcelona at war, published in 1938, won him worldwide recognition. Photographs of civilians under fire -- almost a commonplace within a few years -- were then still a shocking journalistic novelty.

Chim returned to Paris in 1939 on the eve of the Second World War. In May he embarked to photograph the voyage to Mexico of a shipload of Loyalist Spanish refugees. Within a few months war engulfed his family and the countries of his birth and adoption and made him also a refugee.

He settled briefly in New York, eked out a living working in a darkroom, Anglicized his name, and added eloquent, if ungrammatical English to the clutch of languages he commanded. When America entered the war he volunteered for the army and was accepted, despite extremely poor eyesight. His professional experience was put to use in photo reconnaissance and in the interpretation sections of U.S. Air Force intelligence in England. Later he moved onto the Continent as a photo interpreter with General Bradley's 12th Army Group. Chim won the US Bronze Star and, when the war in Europe ended, was both a field-promoted lieutenant and a US citizen.

After the war Chim set off again for Europe to pick his way through the ruins, seeking family, friends, and bits of the past. On an assignment from UNESCO to photograph the children of Europe in the aftermath of the war, he revisited Warsaw and learned once and for all the fate of his parents. They had been killed in 1942 in the ghetto of the town in which the Germans had forced them to live.

In that first, exciting postwar decade of supposed peace and the cold war, Chim and his colleages in the newly formed Magnum Photos group roamed the world on journalistic assignments. For Chim there were trips to newborn Israel, to Greece, and long months working on a book about the Vatican. He shuttled back and forth across the map of Europe, occasionally turned up in New York. Home was wherever he happened to be.

Though he lived in tiny hotels and out of suitcases, Chim savored the good life and enjoyed it to the full. He knew where to find the best food, ther finest tailor, an authentic Baroque angel, or a new painter.

In 1954, when his friend Capa was killed by a mine in the Indochinese fighting, Chim became the president of Magnum. Despite the pressures of business administration, he was able to do some of his best work in this period.


Vienna, Austria, 1948

Copyright 1998 David Seymour Estate

 He adored children, any children, beautiful or deformed, for he was a supremely compassionate man. He recorded children everywhere and cried out in anger against men or systems that could bring suffering to the innocent children. A bachelor and essentially a lonely man, Chim had many "families" everywhere. He was the adopted uncle of his friends' children -- in Rome, Paris, New York, and Tel Aviv -- whose arrival was always welcome, for no one was ever forgotten.

In 1956 Chim was happily pursuing antiquities in Greece when trouble flared in Hungary and Poland and the Suez crisis turned into war. He tried to get to Israel directly from Athens, but was frustrated by transport difficulties. He then made his way via Cyprus to the Suez Canal area, armed with accreditations to the Anglo-French forces. The fighting ended quickly, however, and he arrived in time to photograph mopping-up operations and civilian life in occupied Port Said. He never reached the Israel lines.

With a truce suposedly in force, he went off with Paris-Match photographer Jean Roy to cover the exchange of the wounded. They barreled down the empty road with Roy at the wheel. As they tried to cross the Anglo-French lines to the side where the exchange was to take place, Egyptian machine-gun crackled. Their jeep was riddled and plunged into the canal.

The date was November 10, 1956, ten days before Chim's forty-fifth birthday. That was a milestone that he seemed to feel he would never reach. Only a few months earlier he had sat long hours in Paris, sorting his papers and his photographs, setting his files in order. To a friend he explained that he simply had to get the job done. Why? "Just to save you the trouble of having to do it later."

The job was never done. His life was ended abruptly at the peak of his creative possibilities. There is the feeling of work unfinished in his photographic heritage. Many of his subjects seem to have been barely touched by his sensitive eye and skilled hand with the camera.

Having lost his parents, his country, his youthful hopes and ideals to violence, it was Chim's fate to die violently. For the man whose wish was for "peace, peace," there was no peace.


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