David Seymour was a photojournalist and co-founder of the Magnum Photos cooperative. He was known for his documentation of the Spanish Civil War and cooperation with UNICEF. Seymour died tragically in Suez in 1956.
He was born on 20th November 1911 in Warsaw as Dawid Szymin. His parents were running a publishing house issuing publications in Hebrew and Yiddish. When World War I broke out, the Szymin family moved to Odessa. They returned to Poland once the military conflict ended.
David Seymour was an erudite book-lover. He was fluent in at least four languages and played the piano very well. Having returned to Poland with his family, he subsequently moved to Leipzig to study printing technologies at the prestigious Staatliche Akademie für Graphische Künste und Buchgewerbe. He returned to Poland in 1931, but because of the difficult economic situation and political climate he moved to Paris next year to study chemistry and physics at the Sorbonne.
Paying for Seymour’s upkeep was a financial struggle for his parents. Pangs of conscience made him start working (while simultaneously studying). David Rappaport, a friend of the family running a local photo agency, became Seymour’s first employer. Initially Seymour was responsible for technical matters, but the boss soon discovered his talent and ability to learn quickly. Seymour started depicting Parisian working class, and his photographs soon made it to many illustrated periodicals. He signed his works ‘Chim’ – which is short for his Polish surname, spelled in accordance with the French pronunciation.
In a letter to his fiancée, who stayed in Warsaw, he described his life in Paris the following way:
I am sitting at my desk, on which there’s a globe. I am in my new apartment… I’m getting to know Paris. I’m becoming its part… I am a reporter, or rather a photo-reporter.
Seymour gained appreciation so quickly that it was as soon as 1934 – a year after he began working – that he became one of the photographers of Regardes, a left wing weekly pioneering in humanist photography in France. Around the same time he met two famous photographers: Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
The magazine decided to send the 25-year-old photojournalist, who was particularly empathetic towards the photographed people, to the Spanish Civil War. The images of the front, trenches, and tragedy of the civilians sealed his reputation and elevated him to the position of one of the best photojournalists in the world.
After the end of the conflict, Seymour photographed the defeated republicans fleeing to France, and the post-war emigrants’ sea voyage to Mexico.
Right after the beginning of World War II, Seymour went to New York, where he opened a photo lab called ‘Leco’. The studio, founded together with Leo Cohen, was soon after dubbed one of the best ones in the country. Many renowned and respected photographers who left Europe (for instance André Kertész) used its services.
In 1942 Chim was assigned to the American army. While he was being trained before working in military intelligence, he was granted American citizenship. Fearing Nazi repressions, he decided to change his surname from Szymin to Seymour. Right after the end of World War II, he got the tragic news that his parents had been killed by the Nazis.
In 1947 Seymour and photographers he met while working in Regardes decided to set up the Magnum Photos agency; Chim became its vice-president. A year after, UNICEF delegated him to document the situation of children who survived World War II. Seymour travelled through Austria, Greece, Italy, Hungary, and his homeland, Poland, by car. The photographs took by him at that time are among his best known works. The famous picture Tereska was created then. It shows a small girl drawing her house on the blackboard; her sketch is a terrifying muddle of lines. The photograph was taken in 1948 in a home for children particularly afflicted by the war and rescued from concentration camps or found in hiding places such as wardrobes or sacks of potatoes.
In the 50s Seymour moved to Rome and added film documentation and portraits to his portfolio. He became a well-trusted portraitist of many contemporary film stars, such as Sophia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, and Ingrid Bergman. At that time he frequently visited the new state of Israel, which became one of his most important reportage projects.
Seymour described his profession the following way:
All a photographer needs is a bit of luck and enough muscle strength to push the shutter button.
After Robert Capa’s death in 1954, Seymour became the head of Magnum Photos, but he kept on actively pursuing his career in photography.
David Seymour was famous mostly for his war photography. He tragically died on 10th November 1956 in Egypt during a military conflict, while he was preparing a report on the Suez Crisis for Newsweek. His car was machine-gunned on its way to the Israeli-Egyptian armistice line. One of the bullets fatally injured Seymour.
Sources: www.davidseymour.com; www.magnumphotos.com; radio broadcast: National Public Radio, David Seymour's 'Reflections From The Heart'; Michael Kimmelman, 'Images Engraved In History's Heart', New York Times; the album "Magnum Magnum", author: DS, translation: NS, June 2016.