CHIM: A web biography of David Seymour  


Text by Kate Nearpass - Exhibition Researcher - 1986

Three talented young photographers know as Robert Capa, David Seymour, and Gerda Taro - all in their twenties, liberal, and new to photojournalism - risked their lives in the late 1930's to cover the Spanish Civil War.

 

Estremadura, Spain, 1936

Copyright 1998 David Seymour Estate

 The photographs taken in Spain by Capa, Chim, and Taro captured history in the making as the Second Spanish Republic came to an end, crushed by General Franco and the National Front. Their photographs were distinguished by strong compositions and compassion for the people they photographed. Capa's pictures were especially forceful because they were taken almost fearlessly in the middle of battle, bringing readers closer to war than anything done earlier.

The Spanish Civil War was not only a testing ground for new equipment - tanks and planes from Germany, arms from Italy - it also served as the testing ground for a new piece of photographic equipment. The Leica, invented in the 1920's, was first tried under battle conditions by photographers covering the Spanish Civil War. Small and easy to carry, the Leica used 35 millimeter film rather than clumsy glass plates, and was perfect for the action and stress of wartime use.

Capa, Chim, and Taro became friends in Paris in the early 1930's. Chim arrived first, moving to Paris in 1931 to study chemistry at the Sorbonne. He began a freelance career in photography in 1933. Capa arrived in Paris that year after living in Berlin from 1931 to 1933, where he too had begun working as a freelance photographer.

Gerda Taro likewise moved to Paris around 1933, leaving Leipzig when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany. Taro met Capa in the fall of 1934, and by the following summer they were very much in love. She soon began helping with his freelance assignments, captioning the photographs and acting as agent in selling them to various magazines. He meanwhile taught her the intricacies of photography.

During the early months of 1936, political unrest in Europe began to escalate rapidly, and Capa and Chim covered as many events as they could. The Popular Front in Spain - an anti-fascist coalition of middle class liberals , Socialists, Communists, and working class groups - won the national election in February. Opposing the Popular Front was the National Front, which included the Spanish Catholic party (CEDA), the Monarchist party, the Fascists of the Falange, and other middle class and right-wing groups. The National Front claimed the support of the Army in addition to that of the Catholic Church.

The Spanish Popular Front tried to steer a moderate course during its first months in power. Groups on the far Left, however, including anarchists, Stalinists, and other splinter groups, felt that the liberal victory implied a mandate for immediate change. When change was slow to come, they responded with riots, assassinations, and anti-church vandalism. In April, Regards magazine sent Chim to Spain to cover the situation along with writer Georges Soria.

On July 19, the Civil War officially began when General Francisco Franco took control of the Spanish Army. Like many people in Europe and America, Capa, Seymour, and Taro sided strongly with those who remained loyal to the Popular Front government of Spain - those known as "Republicans" or "Loyalists." Capa and Taro decided to cover events in Spain as a team and landed an assignment for a special issue of Vu magazine. They arrived in Barcelona on August 5, 1936, and traveled to Madrid, Toledo, Cordoba, and elsewhere. Together they photographed the disheartening military progress of the Popular Front's volunteer militia, in its attempt to stop the takeover by Franco.

Early in November, Franco's Army began an assault on Madrid, the seat of government and a Republican stronghold of obvious importance. Capa arrived on November 18 to cover fighting on the outskirts of the city and the plight of civilians who had lost their homes in the air raids. By early 1937, he had established quite a reputation through his coverage of the war in Spain. His Falling Republican soldier, photographed at Cerro Muriano, had gained a reputation as the most exciting action shot of battle ever taken. Chim's name was also well known by 1937, and even Taro was beginning to use the camera with confidence.

On April 26, 1937, German allies of the Nationalist Front bombed the historic town of Guernica in a test of saturation bombing techniques. The decimination of Guernica came to serve as a symbol of Insurgent brutality and a rallying point for the Republicans. Pablo Picasso immortalized the event in his monumental painting Guernica, and Chim was on hand to photograph the artist in front of his work when the painting received its first public showing six weeks later.

Around July 12, Taro traveled without Capa to Brunete to cover the Republican offensive on this important crossroads town. It was during the battle at Brunete that Taro made her best photographs. Brunete is also where she met her death. While riding the running-board of a moving automobile during a disorganized retreat, Taro was crushed by a Republican tank which ran out of control and side-swiped the car. She died a few hours later on July 26, six days short of her 26th birthday. Capa was heartbroken when he heard the news in Paris, and did not return to Spain until December 1937, when he covered the Republican assault on Teruel.

 

Picasso in front of his painting Guernica

Copyright 1998 David Seymour Estate

Capa's last important series from the war was taken in November 1938 near Fraga, along the Rio Segre. These photographs of Republican soldiers during battle received wide coverage in the press, and the new British magazine Picture Post consequently declared Capa "The Greatest War-Photographer in the World". In January, Capa ended his coverage of the Spanish Civil War with photographs of refugees in Barcelona, Figueras, and near Tarragona, where they were strafed by Insurgent planes. Barcelona, the last major Republican stronghold, fell to Franco's troops in January 1939, and Capa returned to Paris.

Chim, too, finished his civil war coverage with the plight of the Spanish refugees. In February, he photographed civilians and Republican soldiers crossing into France and adjusting to life in French concentration camps. The war ended in March when Madrid was taken by Franco's Insurgents. Chim returned to France, and from there sailed on the S.S. Sinai in April, photographing the voyage of hundreds of Spanish refugees bound for Mexico.

Although their lives were cut short tragically at the ages of 25, 41, and 45, the photographs taken by Taro, Capa, and Chim remain with us to tell of the events they covered. Many of their best images were taken during the Spanish Civil War, a period which comes alive for those of later generations who experience it through their photographs.

 

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