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.
It’s a commendable milestone by anyone’s standards – for 70 years, Magnum Photos has been at the forefront of documentary photography, photojournalism and visual storytelling, its members reporting on conflicts, crises and changes for humanity the world over. To celebrate Magnum’s long and rich history, the agency has devised Magnum Retold, a huge group project in which current members revisit stories by their predecessors. Photographers were invited to respond to an archival story that had influenced or inspired their practice in some way – a story that meant something to them personally, or a topical subject they wished to revisit. “There is a repository of amazing work, which is the 70-year-old legacy of these incredible photographers,” explains Magnum’s content director, Francesca Sears.
“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” said Magnum Photos co-founder Robert Capa, famously. This week Magnum Photos is revisiting Capa’s concept with its Square Print Sale, part of a cycle of four print sales it’s running to celebrate its 70th anniversary.
Vintage photographs from David ‘Chim’ Seymour’s Children of Europe series is about to go on display for the first time in the UK. Chim was commissioned by UNICEF following World War II to document the conflict’s impact on children and the resulting photographs drew attention to war’s most vulnerable victims.
The connection between photographer and subject is a vital element in the power of an individual photograph. In turn, the image has the power to inspire, inform and communicate human engagement. In 1948, David ‘Chim’ Seymour would come to pioneer this visual form of emotional empathy through his work with UNICEF – following the children orphaned and scarred by the consequences of the Second World War. Working for six months on a dramatically reduced fee, Chim painstakingly travelled across Europe shooting 257 rolls of film, going beyond mere illustration of UNICEF’s work, the assignment became a labour of love, revealing his unique capacity to awaken the public’s conscience to war’s most vulnerable victims. His unapologetically compassionate approach reflected both his deep seated humanism and unique ability to treat those he photographed with equanimity, reverence and respect, developing a genuine human connection that would become emblematic of the engagement at the heart of documentary photography today. Chim’s photographs remain an indispensible part of history, creating a style of photography which has not only shaped the ethos of Magnum Photos …