Dawid Szymin was destined to run his family’s Yiddish and Hebrew publishing house in Warsaw — until he discovered photography.
In truth, he had already strayed from the path mapped out for him by his parents, having opted to study graphic arts in Leipzig and then at the Sorbonne in Paris.
It was in order to fund those studies that he turned to taking pictures. The excitement of capturing workers’s strikes and the rallies of the new left-wing Popular Front in 1930s France proved too much, and all thoughts of the family business were forgotten.
Under the shorter, easier to pronounce name, Chim, he went on to cover the Spanish Civil War, and the rebuilding of post-war Europe and early Israel, in the process helping to shape the golden era of photo-journalism.
His images became famous, emblematic. According to Cynthia Young, curator of the current exhibition of his work at New York’s International Centre of Photography: “Chim was one of the major photo-journalists contributing to political, leftist imagery from the 1930s to ’50s.”
He captured the most prestigious events and people, including French Prime Minister Léon Blum, the writer André Malraux and Pablo Picasso standing proudly in front of his famous painting, Guernica.
Chim was on assignment in Mexico when the Nazis occupied Paris in 1940. Knowing it was too dangerous to return, he headed for New York, became an American citizen and changed his name again — to David Robert Seymour.
It was in America, that he made perhaps his most important contribution. In 1947, alongside his close friends from Paris, Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, he founded the still prestigious Magnum photo agency, the first co-operative for independent photographers.
At the time, Chim was the most established of the three, yet while Capa and Cartier-Bresson are regarded as superstars of photo-journalism, his reputation has declined over the years.
“He didn’t live as long as Cartier-Bresson — Chim was killed on assignment, while covering the Suez crisis in 1956 — and nor did he have the glamorous life of Capa. So he fell through the cracks of international recognition,” says Young.
Being a modest sort did not help, either. According to his niece, Helen Sarid: “Chim was a quiet intellectual who went about his work equally quietly.’’
Carole Naggar, historian and author of the book Chim’s Children of War, agrees. “Cartier-Bresson did things quickly — he took his subjects by surprise. Capa was more interested in action pictures. Chim stepped back and studied the causes and consequences of war and how life went on. Cartier-Bresson and Capa are at the front. Chim is behind the scenes.”
But this more reflective way of working brought benefits. Chim’s pictures are subtler, says Paul Lowe, photographer and senior lecturer at the London College of Communication. “He has enormous humanity and softness of spirit — and got a little closer to what the everyday person would see in a scene. It is rare that you see a photographer of war being so gentle and concentrating on these quieter moments.”
According to Young, being Jewish was fundamental to Chim’s work. He left Poland because of the rise in anti-semitism and his commitment to socialist politics was drawn from the rise in fascism. He understood what it was like to be a refugee, an orphan [he discovered after the war that his parents had been killed] — and how people survived in a new land.”
With a family home always full of visitors such as Isaac Bashevis Singer and the poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, culture was important to him. “It’s how he got close to the celebrities he met and photographed. You can see what interested him — people who were involved in that cultural world like Ernest Hemingway and the art historian, Bernard Berenson,” says Sarid.
Celebrities trusted him. He even took rare shots of Ingrid Bergman relaxing at home with her family. “People felt comfortable with him so he got their best side. His sitters opened themselves up to him,” says Sarid.
Chim’s nephew and executor of his estate, Ben Shneiderman, believes the secret was in the way he established eye contact with his subjects. “He treated them with respect and attention and showed he wanted to tell their story — and they responded.” Shneiderman cites the 1949 image of the man in the Alma settlement in Israel showing off his baby to Chim’s camera as an example of his ability to connect with people.
Chim’s pictures elegantly capture the complexities behind his stories, whether it be French politics or the nascent state of Israel. Take one of his most famous images — a kibbutz wedding where the chupah is held up by pitchforks and guns, symbolising the pioneer spirit of the new Israelis.
Chim’s aesthetic carries all the hallmarks of Bauhaus and constructivism that he would have been exposed to in his early days in Leipzig. There are bird’s eye views of scenes like the funeral procession of the French Communist politician, Henri Barbusse; tilted perspectives; carefully composed shapes, such as the sea of umbrellas held aloft by spectators listening to a political speech, and the poetic play of light and shadow in the Republican trenches in the Spanish Civil War.
After year’s of neglect, interest is growing in Chim’s work, not just because of its quality and importance — nostalgia is playing a role too. As Naggar says: “People are looking back at images of a time when things were simpler and everyone was working towards a common goal.”