Magazine article USA TODAY

Chim Is Him: Discovering David Szymin

Magazine article USA TODAY

Chim Is Him: Discovering David Szymin

Article excerpt

"[He] had the intelligence of a chess player; with the air of a math teacher, he applied his profession.... Chim picked up his camera the way a doctor takes his stethoscope out of his bag, applying his diagnosis to the condition of the heart. His own was vulnerable. "--Henri Cartier-Bresson

IF YOU DO NOT know who David Seymour is or, for that matter, you never have heard the name Chim before, do not feel bad. They are one and the same. Although not well-known to the general public, he was a highly regarded photojournalist and a co-founder of the famous cooperative known as Magnum Photos. Many of his images are quite famous, and you probably know them by sight, but have not been able to connect them to a particular photographer, time, or place. In fact, they are by this man, David Seymour.

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It all gets a little confusing. Seymour's original name--when he was born in Poland in 1911--was David Szymin. Yet, it was so difficult to pronounce that, when the young man went to Paris to study in the sciences, and found that he needed to supplement his income through working as an aspiring photographer, it simply was easier for him to come up with a moniker for his last name and that moniker was Chim (which is how people outside his homeland seemed to be pronouncing his name).

Photography is not a sensibility of one size fits all; it has different roots back to its origins in the early 1840s. Photography can be documentary, propaganda, fine art, or, as in Chim's case, current events. When Chim took up photography in the 1930s, he was very lucky in that he ran into two young aspiring photographers who also went on to enjoy great success in that field. One was the Hungarian-born Robert Capa and the other was the French-born Henri Cartier-Bresson.

These three men became friends--lifelong friends. About a decade or so into their friendship, they, along with George Rodger, formed a photographers cooperative called Magnum--a photo agency that was not run by businessmen telling photographers what to do. Instead, the photographers themselves ran it. Consequently, it was much more sympathetic to their goals as artists and practitioners of the medium. Magnum celebrated its 60th anniversary last year with a major show at the International Center for Photography in New York.

Chim was a photographer that had very progressive ideas politically. He was not a Communist, but he very much was on the socialist-leftist side of things. Chim's photographs during his early days in Paris and, later, in 1936 when he went to Spain during the Spanish Civil War, tend to be on the side of the workers in France as well as the loyalists who were fighting against the rebels (the Francisco Franco army in Spain).

One of Chim's most famous photographs was of the 1936 land distribution meeting during the Spanish Civil War; it shows a woman in a crowd--in the hot, broiling sun--straining to hear the words of the speaker, while a child nurses at her breast. It is a work that has sentiment, but not sentimentality, while showing the harsh conditions that Chim and those he was photographing had to endure during those brutal days. The image conveys the great sense of insecurity that was present during the Spanish Civil War.

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Chim also was very much part of the intellectual community of Paris at the time. In 1937, he took another famous photograph--of Pablo Picasso standing before the painting "Guemica," the abstract artist's great indictment of fascism and the involvement of the Germans with Franco in the destruction of the town. Here, Picasso stands, smoking and diminutive, but powerful and kind of equal to the painting behind him, which shows a section of Guemica that was made specifically for the Spanish Pavilion of the World's Fair in Paris that year.

China was somebody who followed his stories. In fact, he once got on a boat with loyalist refugees who were going to Mexico and took photographs when they landed. …

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