Didek Szymin was born into a middle-class family in Warsaw, Poland on November 20, 1911. His father was a well-to-do publisher of Hebrew and Yiddish texts. During the First World War, the family was forced out of their home and lived briefly in the Ukraine port city of Odessa before returning to Warsaw in 1919. The junior Seymour studied graphic arts and color plate-making in hopes of entering his father’s publishing business. Graduating from Leipzig’s Academy of Fine Arts in 1931, he moved to Paris to study chemistry at the Sorbonne. However, when the Great Depression made it financially impossible for him to continue his education, Mr. Szymin sought employment from family friend David Rappaport, who owned the successful Parisian photo agency, “Rap.” It is during this period where Mr. Szymin formed important friendships with photographers Andre Friedmann (later known as Robert Capa) and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Despite his lack of formal training in photography, Mr. Szymin’s photographer friends provided him with the mentorship and hands-on experience that would serve him well as a photojournalist.
With his trusted small-format 35-mm Leica camera in hand, Mr. Szymin became a local correspondent for the left-wing Regards publication, where his series of photographs chronicling the Popular Front received international attention. In 1936, with the title of Special Correspondent, he was sent to Spain to photograph the Spanish Civil War. His identification with the displaced refugees was readily apparent in his poignant photographs, as he followed them into exile three years’ later. Mr. Szymin and his contemporaries pioneered wartime photography with their compact Leica and Contax cameras equipped with rapid lenses that took exquisite on-scene photos that needed little light. As a Jew, his safety in Europe was threatened by the onset of World War II, requiring Mr. Szymin to seek his own refuge in the United States, whereupon he became an American citizen and changed his name to David Robert Seymour. He also began signing his photographs as “Chim,” a derivative of his original surname pronunciation.
After the war, Mr. Seymour returned to Europe to document reconstruction efforts with his new camera of choice, the Rolleiflex, with which he captured some particularly moving images in color. In 1947, he formed the Magnum Photos global photographic cooperative with friends and colleagues Robert Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and George Rodger. The following year, UNICEF commissioned Mr. Seymour to photograph the ravages of war on European children, and this career-defining series was published by LIFE Magazine and later as a book entitled Children of Europe. With manipulated lighting and angle positioning, Mr. Seymour’s subjective camera captured both “an innocent and violated child.” During the early- and mid-1950s, he concentrated Magnum’s efforts on celebrity photography, selling portraits of artists and movie stars to several popular worldwide magazines.
On May 25, 1954, Robert Capa was killed by a landmine while on assignment in Thanh Binh, Vietnam. Mr. Seymour replaced his friend as president of Magnum, but returned as a field photographer after Egypt attacked Israel on October 14, 1956. Arriving in Port Said on November 7 with Paris Match photographer Jean Roy, the duo traveled to cover a prisoner exchange when they were killed by Egyptian machine gunfire. In 1966, the Werner Bischof-Robert Capa-David Seymour Memorial Fund was created in New York City. Later renamed the International Center of Photography, it maintains an extensive photographic archive of Mr. Seymour’s original prints. Of his dear friend, Henri Cartier-Bresson provided a fitting eulogy when he wrote, “Chim picked up his camera the way a doctor takes a stethoscope out of his bag, applying his diagnosis to the condition of the heart.”
2018 Artist: Chim (David Seymour) by Lisa Hostetler (URL: https://www.icp.org/browse/archive/constituents/chim-david-seymour?all/all/all/all/0).
2016 David Seymour: A Life Worth Living by Carole Naggar (URL: https://www.magnumphotos.com/theory-and-practice/david-seymour-life-worth-living).
2006 Encyclopedia of Twentieth-Century Photography, Vol. I (New York: Routledge/Taylor & Francis Group LLC), pp. 1408-1411.
2014 Photography: A Concise History by Donald Kahn (Bloomington, IN: Xlibris LLC), p. 85.
1994 Robert Capa: A Biography by Richard Whelan (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press), p. 56.
2017 Seizing the Light: A Social & Aesthetic History of Photography by Robert Hirsch (New York: Routledge), p. 349.
2007 The Writing of Anxiety by Lyndsey Stonebridge (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan), p. 42.
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