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David “Chim” Seymour, Searching for the Light

“He used his camera like a doctor would use a stethoscope in order to diagnose the state of the heart. His own was vulnerable”, Cartier-Bresson wrote about David Seymour, who liked to be called Chim. A new biography sheds light on this photographer, best known as one of the cofounders of photojournalism’s famous cooperative Magnum Photos.

Dawid Szymin was born in Warsaw in 1911, when no independent Polish state existed. Always vulnerable to land grabs from its neighbors—the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Monarchy –, the country would gain only fragile independence at the end of World War I.

And when Dawid died in Egypt in November 1956, his coffin was draped in the American flag, a country whose nationality he had chosen in 1943 but where he almost never took pictures.

Between these two dates, his life traversed a revolution, a civil war, and two world wars; he lost his family to the Holocaust, moved to Italy and explored Greece, fell in love with Israel, and died an absurd death in the Suez War three days after the ceasefire.

Through his many lives, David Robert Seymour, as he was known in America, constantly reinvented himself, a citizen of the world who nevertheless remained a European.

Destroyed typewriter after bombing. Gijon, Asturias, Spain, January 1937. ©David Seymour-Magnum Photos
Destroyed typewriter after bombing. Gijon, Asturias, Spain, January 1937. © David Seymour-Magnum Photos

Il Professore

He never answered to Dawid, seeming to invite pet names: Dick, Dik, Didek, as a child and youth, Chim, Chimou, Chim-Chim or Chimsky later, before settling on Chim. He had a plethora of nicknames too: his colleague Elliott Erwitt called him “The Unflamboyant”, and journalist Horace Sutton wrote that “he avoided ostentation as if it were the Automat.”

His fascination with the rituals of Italian Catholicism prompted Trudy Feliu, a Paris editor at Magnum in the 1950s, and his Roman friends, to call him “Il Papabile.” Because of his bookish looks, many called him “Il Professore.”

Born into a cultured community of Yiddish and Polish speakers, Chim was attached to his Jewish roots, to the specificity of his family’s milieu, and to their craft of bookmaking and publishing. As a child in World War I, when his family fled to Russia in 1915 as the German advance on Poland began, he made the first of his many linguistic journeys, from Yiddish, Hebrew, and Polish to Russian.

Later on, he brushed up on his high-school German and learned French in Paris, where he had followed the trail of many Eastern European artists and writers of his generation.

When he arrived in New York in 1939, he did not speak the language but soon, in the words of his friend Judy Friedberg, “added eloquent, if ungrammatical, English to the clutch of languages he commanded.”3 In the early 1950s, Italian followed.

Through his travels and exiles, Chim remained profoundly shaped by his early interests in music, literature, design, and politics, and his left-wing convictions gave him an important connection to the future members of Magnum Photos.

Selma was sent to the store for a pot of soup and a bottle of milk, Lodz, 1938 © Roman Vishniac
Selma was sent to the store for a pot of soup and a bottle of milk, Lodz, 1938 © Roman Vishniac

Chim did not possess a striking physique. He was neither tall nor muscular, with delicate features that seemed a bit lost in his round, owlish face. His most expressive aspect—moody, hazelnut eyes—was hidden behind thick eyeglasses, and his dark blond hair soon receded. He usually had a cigarette held between index finger and thumb or dangling from his lower lip.

His unassuming appearance was paired with a deliberately neutral elegance: silk tie and gray three-piece suit, white bespoke silk shirt, shoes shined to a mirror, and black camera bag. He might have taken off the jacket in a Magnum meeting, but he would never, ever roll up his sleeves.

From the 1930s to the mid-1950s, successive photographs show surprisingly little change in his looks or the way he presented himself, except for the graying of his hair and his increasing chubbiness, the inevitable consequence of the convivial, gourmet dinners that were his joy.

Tereska, a child at a school for traumatized children, is asked to draw a home. Warsaw, 1948. ©David Seymour-Magnum Photos
Tereska, a child at a school for traumatized children, is asked to draw a home. Warsaw, 1948. © David Seymour-Magnum Photos

The most enigmatic of Magnum’s founders

This self-contained, somewhat mysterious man resembled the main character of a detective movie: John Morris, a long-time Magnum editor, thought that he looked like Peter Lorre. He wrote:  “Seymour was the most enigmatic of the founders. For months I thought he was a spy, which in a way he became when he worked for Allied Intelligence in London as a photo interpreter.”

Marc Riboud, who joined Magnum in 1955, told me, “There are men who, without being good looking, possess a great beauty. Chim was not handsome, but his face reflected his wit and obvious intelligence.”

Martha Gellhorn, a war correspondent, and writer who was Ernest Hemingway’s companion in the Spanish Civil War and future wife, wrote a short story where she changed Chim’s name to Lep.

This is how she describes him: “Lep looked something like an owl and something like a panda, and something like a head of Buddha, quiet to the verge of invisibility, a man who smiled slowly and rarely laughed, a serious man, given to, serious obscure friends like archaeologists and doctors and musicians in Philharmonic  orchestras, a small gentle man with a domed forehead over his vast spectacles…”

Chim’s colleague Jean Marquis remembers: “He had a very soft voice and a certain elegance in his way of expressing himself. His gaze was very expressive. It was like an interior laugh, not nasty. He was not aggressive, but his remarks could be very pointed. Bob [Capa] paid a lot of attention to his remarks and would frequently ask his opinion.”

Marquis’s wife Susie, who worked for several years at the Magnum office in Paris, added: “He was very accessible work wise but not personally. He did not let on anything about his personal life. There was a distance and he wanted to keep it that way.”

Boys in Albergo dei Poveri Reformatory, Naples, Italy, 1948 © David Seymour-Magnum Photos
Boys in Albergo dei Poveri Reformatory, Naples, Italy, 1948 © David Seymour-Magnum Photos

“He taught me how to tell a story in pictures”

Professionally, Chim was an attentive reader of his colleagues’ work and his own contact sheets, one of the very few people, for instance, to whom, Cartier-Bresson showed his layout and text for Images à la Sauvette (The Decisive Moment,1952).

His colleague Jean Marquis remembers: “He is the one who taught me editing. He was interested in both the composition and the technical aspect of photography. He taught me how to tell a story in pictures. He let me choose and then he looked and made suggestions, but he never imposed. Contrary to Henri, it was about storytelling rather than aesthetics. I never saw him irritated or angry. In meetings, he tried to be persuasive. Sometimes he would get a little more heated with Bob when it was necessary.”

Never cruel, always attentive, Chim was the voice of reason in heated group discussions. He rarely laughed aloud but smiled often, and, when surprised, lifted a thin eyebrow. He was also a shrewd businessman who in 1955 wrote the Magnum bylaws that gave the agency its foundation and are still in effect today.

Marc Riboud noted: “After Capa and Bischof’s deaths in 1954, he was an efficient president.” His colleague Elliott Erwitt added: “Chim made a great contribution on the business side. Henri [Cartier-Bresson] had no understanding of money. Capa had no sense of business: He was a good promoter and salesman but a terrible administrator.”

Trying to describe Chim’s personality, colleagues and friends give contradictory opinions. Distant, withdrawn, silent, some say. Plaintive, even: “Please, please, don’t feel neglected,” his colleague Maria Eisner admonished him. “Like the wandering Jew, he seemed to carry the world upon his shoulders, but I suspect he was hiding his pleasure at going out on the job,” Jinx Rodger says.

No—warm, smiling, generous, charming, others retort. They stress his lack of ego and his generosity in suggesting assignments to younger photographers as well as helping them financially, by taking them out to dinner, or socially, by introducing them to influential people.

He taught his niece Helen how to drink gin and brought her to a tailor for her first Italian silk shirt. He never forgot his nephews’, nieces’ and colleagues’ friends’ birthdays and would appear with armfuls of presents, often bought at FAO Schwarz, the famous New York toy store, during his visits.

Hungry Greek Children © David Seymour (Chim)
Hungry Greek Children © David Seymour-Magnum Photos

A man of secret compartments

Among his multiple faces are that of a quiet seducer (as certain letters reveal), benevolent brother and uncle, formidable businessman and negotiator, king of public relations, friend of princes and prelates, secretaries, and bartenders. He remained secretive about his personal life—especially his girlfriends—and had many friends who often did not know each other.

One of them remembered wistfully: “When I went to announce his death to his friend Dave Schoenbrun, he said to me in the conversation that followed: ‘You and I know each other very little. And yet Chim was a friend of both of us. He was a man of secret compartments and he forgot to make them communicate.’”

Chim was definitely an eccentric. A people collector, he had friends in the most varied milieus, and from their acquaintance or the many books he read, liked to acquire arcane knowledge about all sorts of fields, knowledge that he would drop unexpectedly into conversations. “You never knew what he would come up with—striptease or the history of the Franciscan order,” his friend and colleague Burt Glinn recalled.

A wine connoisseur, he would drink not to get drunk but to savor the wines’ varied flavors as if they were books to read. A gourmet, he loved to find new, out-of-the way restaurants to taste obscure dishes such as the ortolan, a minuscule stuffed bird soaked in cognac and eaten whole, bones and all. But in difficult circumstances, such as the Spanish Civil War, he was content to share with his comrades a simple meal of beans or lentils, stale bread, and sardines with cheap red wine.

Socially adept, he could easily project himself into any role that the situation required and connect with just about anyone—from street children to communist militants, Spanish Civil War fighters to Vatican priests, world-renowned artists to Hollywood stars, and kibbutz dwellers to Egyptian civilians. Seamlessly slipping from country to country and milieu to milieu, he seemed, like a cat, to be living nine lives.

Woman nursing a baby at a land reform meeting near Badajoz, Extramadura, Spain, May 1936.©David Seymour-Magnum Photos
Woman nursing a baby at a land reform meeting near Badajoz, Extramadura, Spain, May 1936. © David Seymour-Magnum Photos

“Capa was a pal, but Chim was a friend”

Old or young, poor or famous, colleagues or strangers, people loved him. To each, he would reveal only a fragment of himself, but in such a way that, warmed by his welcoming kindness, each would feel for an instant that he was the best, the closest friend. As Cartier-Bresson once told me, “Capa was a pal, but Chim was a friend.”

Bill Pepper, a Newsweek editor in Rome, gives a beautifully nuanced description of him: “Chim came in and out of our lives unexpectedly like a sunrise. He extended our inner lives with his feelings. He was so like an inner voice in our lives, it is strange how he came along. This correlates with his affinity with children in his photography. We all have children inside us, the residual element of wonder that is never extinguished, and this is the part he was talking to.”

A peace correspondent who died at war, Chim was, behind his smile, a man haunted by the Holocaust that destroyed the Jews of Europe, including most of his family. And if sometimes he withdrew with his pile of unanswered letters, letting the phone ring, maybe it was because he was overcome by the great wave of a sadness that would not end.

David « Chim » Seymour. Searching for the Light. 1911-1956. Published by De Gruyter Oldenbourg 2022. 89,95 €.

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