Chim-The Photographs of David Seymour
1911-Chim  1933-Paris  1936-Spain  1947-Germany  1948-UNESCO  1950-Italy  1952-Portraits  1954-Greece  1956-Israel
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1956 - Israel

David Seymour (Chim).
Photograph by Elliott Erwitt
1996 Elliott Erwitt

David Seymour (Chim).
Photograph by Philippe Halsman
1996 from the Estate of Philippe Halsman

(Nazario) Eliezer Tritto and his daughter Myriam, Alma, Israel, 1951. Myriam was the first child to be born in the Italian immigrant settlement in Alma.
1996 from the Estate of David Seymour

Nahal Kibbutz in the Huleh Valley. Israel, 1952
1996 from the Estate of David Seymour

Patrolling the border between the Negev Desert in Israel on the border of Jordan. Israel, 1952
1996 from the Estate of David Seymour

Port Said, Egypt, 1956
1996 from the Estate of David Seymour

A woman mourns at the funeral of an Israeli watchman slain during a border incident at Beth Hafafa, Jerusalem, 1953.
1996 from the Estate of David Seymour

The plight of the Jews was never far from Chim's consciousness, even, as Cartier-Bresson described it, "with a certain sense of despair at his own situation." However sophisticated and caring he was, however much he enjoyed life, he was conditioned by the circumstances of his background and by the fate of his parents in a world where anti- Semitism was rife. The safe haven of Palestine, later Israel, for those who had survived the Holocaust, was therefore never far from his thoughts. In November 1947, the young United Nations passed a resolution to partition Palestine into two new states, the State of Israel and the State of Palestine. The latter was never formed because the leaders of Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon rejected the partition, and immediately upon the formation of the State of Israel, in May 1948, these five Arab nations attacked it in war.

But it was not until October 1951, when Israel had been an independent state for almost three years, that Chim arrived there, having obtained from his sister all the addresses of their family in Israel. "It will be strange to meet them after so many years!" he wrote, and once there, "You can imagine how everything here is emotionally charged and moving."

In those pioneering days, Israel was vibrant with the intimacy of youth. During one of his trips, in December 1953, the newspapers reported a not-infrequent incident: an Israeli soldier guarding some Arab women picking olives near the border had been killed. In heartrending photographs, Chim told the story of the funeral, and the anguish at the sudden death of such a young man.

Chim returned to Israel almost every year until his untimely death in 1956. As his coverage grew, it developed into a survey of the important aspects of the young country's development: he did stories on the all-important themes of defense of Israel's borders, deployment of the water resources essential for irrigation, life in a kibbutz, the development of the copper mines in the south that date back to King Solomon's times, the oil pipeline, and other aspects of the country's industrialization. And as time progressed, he photographed Israel's important tourist sites. Had he lived, he would have continued his coverage in Israel. As it is, there is enough material in Chim's work for a book on the country's beginnings, idealistic and enthusiastic as they were. In a way, the spirit of Chim's coverage in Israel is reminiscent of his work during the Spanish civil war. In those early years in Israel, there was the camaraderie, purposefulness, and intimacy in the face of danger that he had encountered in Spain. But there was more: he photographed the stages of life, birth, marriage, and death. Looking at these photographs, one cannot help feeling that Chim's soul rested in Israel, the land of his forefathers.

Nineteen fifty-six was a busy and successful year. Chim went to England to photograph an atomic energy installation there. He covered the Italian elections. He once again photographed Ingrid Bergman, his favorite subject, and other beautiful women. He cemented new relationships with magazines: Newsweek and House and Garden. For the latter he wrote his first text piece, scholarly and amusing, on "The Legends of Rome." He wrestled down an administrative monster to create an appropriate growth for Magnum, and called the annual meeting for November 10 at which changes would be explained and implemented.

He was in the Greek countryside enjoying a well earned vacation when the Suez Canal crisis began, and at the same time, the Hungarian revolution. Chim postponed the Magnum meeting for coverage of these important events. Erich Lessing left Vienna for Budapest. Burt Glinn was in Tel Aviv.

Chim knew it would be foolish for him to cover the Hungarian revolution. Chim was almost forty-six years old, and he had not been to war for twenty years. Chim thought it would be wonderful to travel from Egypt to Israel, as the children of Israel did with Moses.

The Israeli forces advanced swiftly through the Negev onto Egyptian soil. In Athens the press corps was excited by the news, and frustrated trying to get to Egypt. Chim managed to obtain transportation to Cyprus. While awaiting accreditation, he photographed French paratroopers getting ready to fly off. There was a day of waiting, which Chim spent reading dispatches, and also photographing part of one of the religious festivals he loved so much. There is a contact sheet of little girls in a procession, dressed up as nuns and angels. The next day, Chim flew with Ben Bradlee of Newsweek and Frank White of Time-Life to Port Said in Egypt. They were joined by Paris Match photographer Jean Roy, known for his war-time exploits. For the next day and a half they all drove through the streets of Port Said. Frank White wrote:

    Dave [Seymour] must have known what he was letting himself in for. Ben Bradlee and I made no secret of the fact that we were scared to death. But Dave, the quiet rational man, the intellectual...said nothing. He just kept on making pictures. When making pictures he seemed to be an entirely different man. He kept saying, "this is a great story." I got the impression that he felt this made him somehow impervious to risk.

On November 10, four days after the armistice, with Jean Roy driving their jeep, Chim set out to photograph an exchange of wounded soldiers at El Quantara. The photographers drove fast past the Anglo-French lines and down the causeway toward the Egyptian lines. Machine-gun bullets struck Jean Roy and Chim. The jeep turned over. Both were dead.

Chim's body was flown back to New York. Over three hundred people attended the memorial service for him. From Paris, Henri Cartier-Bresson and Ernst Haas sent handwritten messages. Thinking of Bob Capa and Werner Bischof, Ernst wrote: "Chim! As I don't believe that death is an end, I can only say that I envy you the company you will be in." And Henri: "Chim was a friend of mine since 24 years. I would like to just ask for a moment of silence to meditate, as silence reaches beyond distance."

Inherent in their appreciation of the man is respect for the quality of his photographs, for in a group bonded by the quality of work, one is not possible without the other.

Chim styled himself a craftsman, and he had an unusual mastery over his tools. He was devoted to the quest and sharing of knowledge, with expert composition as the corollary in conveying this knowledge. He was endowed with a tremendous tenderness and great emotion. The photographs of his "Children" stand out as haunting images, but as he progressed in age, his compositions became more complex and more visual, a trifle less emotional. His late work is full of his finest images. In his last years, he allowed himself on occasion to indulge in purely visual problems, as in his outstanding photographs involving sculpture.

There was in Chim a schism between the solid citizen who enjoyed and recorded a variety of the concerns and pleasures of civilized society and the artist. Witness to this dichotomy are the splendid, original compositions and the phenomenon of the sudden, always perfectly composed single exposures of a subject that are not the work of a journalist, even if their content is journalistic.

In Chim there was that irrational element that is an important part of creativity, which makes the artist in the performance of his work feel free, and in this freedom, feel invulnerable. It is that element on which journalist Frank White commented about Chim photographing at Suez, just before his death, as he said, "When making pictures he seemed to be an entirely different man ... I got the impression that he felt this made him somehow impervious to the risk..."

But for the lure of the story, Chim would have lived, as indeed he had begun to live, to reconcile the brilliant aspects of his photography with his equally brilliant ability to conduct a business whose capital was the unruly, querulous spirit of ever-pioneering humanistic photography.

As for the history of photography, this book is but an introduction to Chim's work. Much more sifting, much more studying will have to be done before we can codify David Seymour's repeated patterns of composition and story structure, and his color work, about which we have said nothing here. Only then will his influence on photography be widely felt.

For now we may safely say that the scholar and humanist David Seymour was a Renaissance man of impeccable ethics, blessed with kindness, tolerance, modesty, and exquisite sensitivity in his appreciation of others, of the world, and of the requirements of his craft. Though he photographed for only fifteen years, his is an oeuvre of distinction in the annals of modern photography.

- Inge Bondi

1996, Inge Bondi
from CHIM: The Photographs of David Seymour, Bulfinch Press/Little, Brown and Company

1911-Chim  1933-Paris  1936-Spain  1947-Germany  1948-UNESCO  1950-Italy  1952-Portraits  1954-Greece  1956-Israel
ICP CHIM Home Credits