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Two Jewish Views Of Photography


Wedding with a Chuppah Held Up by Rifles and Pitchforks (1952), photograph by David Seymour © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

Wedding with a Chuppah Held Up by Rifles and Pitchforks (1952), photograph by David Seymour © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

Chim and Vishniac at International Center of Photography
1133 Avenue of the Americas at 43rd Street, New York, NY
Tues – Thurs 10am – 6pm; Fri 10am – 8pm; Sat, Sun 10am – 6pm
Admission $14; Students & Seniors $10; under 12 free; Fri 5 – 8pm Pay what you wish
www.icp.org

Two masters of modern photography are on view at the International Center of Photography; Chim (Szymin) aka David Seymour and Roman Vishniac. They are both Jewish and just happen to bring astute but radically different visions to Jewish photographic subjects. These brilliant, exhaustive exhibitions help us examine the fundamentals of what it means to create a Jewish Art in photography.

We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933 – 1956 by CHIM

Chim, the byline that David Szymin expediently chose in the 1930’s, was for his time, “the photographer’s photographer.” He was the prototypical twentieth century European photojournalist, covering the most controversial subjects with an unabashed, left-wing perspective. He made it his business to be where the political action was happening. He was relentless in pursuing his photographic passions, working with like-minded journalists on assignments that included the destitute, the French working-class struggles, the Spanish Civil War and the unfolding drama of the emerging State of Israel. In 1947 he was assigned to travel with CBS reporter Bill Downs on a story called “We Went Back,” documenting post-war conditions in England, France, Belgium and Germany. At home with seemingly everyone, a UNESCO project documenting the effects of WWII on children perhaps showed him at his most sensitive. This exhibition exhaustively covers his entire career and is wonderfully curated by Cynthia Young.

Tereska (1948) photograph by David Seymour.  © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

Tereska (1948) photograph by David Seymour. © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

Tereska is one of the most riveting images reflecting the mental devastation that the war engendered. As a survivor she cannot live with her memories, and when asked to picture a “home,” she depicts a horrible chaos. Taken in 1948, she was in a home for emotionally disturbed children in Warsaw. We do not know her background; we only know her mental anguish. The excellent catalogue essay by Carole Naggar comments that “very few of Chim’s European photographs pertain to Jewish issues, and the UNESCO project makes virtually no mention of Jewish children or Jewish DP camps.” Nonetheless, this image is unforgettable.

Chim was born David Szymin in Warsaw in 1911. His father published the leading Yiddish and Hebrew writers of the time, including Sholem Asch, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Sholem Aleichem among many others. Contemporary Yiddish and Hebrew thought was his lifeblood. Sent to study in Leipzig and then at the Sorbonne in Paris he blossomed as a photographer when forced to earn a living. Paris was the vortex of 1930’s Modernism and he soon met Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, two cutting edge photographers with whom he would found Magnum, the photographer’s cooperative, 20 years later. Fundamental to their success as photographers was “The three men shared an uncanny ability to relate to anyone socially, from the destitute to the wealthy.”

Chim’s photographic work was almost always an assignment coupled with a journalist, resulting in a series of photographs rather than one iconic image. They worked for left-wing popular magazines documenting the devastating economic conditions of the 1930’s, increasing political and union unrest as well as anti-fascist agitation. When the Spanish Civil War erupted as the battleground between the democratic left and the oppression of Fascism, this was clearly the conflict for these journalists to cover and Chim was at the center of much of the three-year civil war.

Chim accompanied the exiled defeated Republicans to Mexico where he made his way to New York and eventual US citizenship – and a new name: David Seymour. WWII stranded him in the United States but eventually he served as an interpreter and photographic code breaker in the Army. His post-war years were very active but it is his work in the fledging State of Israel that especially interests us. There he found a perfect marriage between his leftist politics and Jewish roots.

The First Baby in Alma, Israel (1951) photograph by David Seymour.  © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

The First Baby in Alma, Israel (1951) photograph by David Seymour. © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

The First Baby in Alma, Israel (1951) is an iconic image of parental pride and, ultimately, communal achievement. Alma, a moshav in the Upper Galilee was founded in 1949 and later settled by Italian converts known as the “Jews of San Nicandro.” From this Italian community most finally moved to Israel in the 1950’s, many settling in Alma. Somehow Seymour found them and the joyous occasion of their first child. The visual linking of the proud father, female infant dressed in a traditional Italian christening dress and the modest house compellingly communicates the faith, hope and determination of settling their new land.

So too he found a Wedding with a Chuppah Held Up by Rifles and Pitchforks, a pictorial ode to the pioneer socialist ideal of early Israel. Notice the carefully planned composition in which the darker participants surround the white clad and well-lit couple. Not surprisingly everyone is concentrating on the magic trio of chassan, kallah and the rabbi, all protected by the tattered chuppah. David Seymour framed it perfectly, placing the shy boy exactly in the center, with the right side open to allow a view of the hills beyond. In these photographs composition is everything.

Tashlich Women at the Edge of the Sea (1954) Photograph by David Seymour.  © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

Tashlich Women at the Edge of the Sea (1954) Photograph by David Seymour. © Chim (David Seymour)/ Magnum Photos

Of Seymour’s work with Jewish subjects the image of Tashlich Women at the Edge of the Sea (1954) is possibly the most compelling. Female piety of this degree was almost certainly not in Seymour’s experience and yet he felt compelled to record it. As a professional he reached over the divide of personal experience to understand Jewish religiosity.

David Seymour continued his work as a photojournalist photographing working people, the rich, the famous, the political and the ordinary. For him, all humanity was worth capturing and bringing back. Tragically, on assignment to cover a prisoner exchange at the very end of the Suez Crisis David Seymour was shot and killed by Egyptian soldiers in 1956.

Roman Vishniac Rediscovered

While Roman Vishniac (1897 – 1990) is the photographer most associated with pre-war Eastern European Jewry, tragically his documentation of that world became its eulogy. In this expansive exhibition curated by Maya Benton at the ICP the enormity of the Holocaust is inescapable. With the recent discovery of much unknown and unpublished work, this groundbreaking exhibition radically reassesses a 20th century master, who focused on European Jewish life in a much wider and complex scale than ever imagined.

Vishniac was born in 1897 to an affluent Russian Jewish family and grew up in Moscow, eventually becoming a biologist. During the Bolshevik Revolution in 1918 his family fled to Berlin because of anti-Semitic attacks. There he quickly developed into an accomplished amateur street photographer reflecting Weimar Modernist technique. One such image taken in the late 1920’s – early 1930’s is the interior of the Anhalter Bahnhof train station. This austere image, taken from above features three figures in complete silhouette. It captures just enough of the figures to spin a mystery as to their disparate missions, even while emphasizing the abstract quality of the long cast shadows and silhouetted architecture. It is quiet a modern masterpiece.

Nazi Storm Troopers Marching in Berlin (1935) photograph by Roman Vishniac.  © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

Nazi Storm Troopers Marching in Berlin (1935) photograph by Roman Vishniac. © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography

As Vishniac developed as a photographer the world around him was becoming Nazified. He took it upon himself to document the rise of Nazi power, focusing on the everyday incursions: anti-Semitic posters, swastika flags and graffiti. Nazi Storm Troopers Marching in Berlin (1935) is a brilliant example, framing a mere 3 soldiers marching, framed by streetlight poles and against a foggy Berlin Cathedral in the background. It is understated, subtle and terrifying.

In 1935 the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (AJDC) commissioned Vishniac to document remote Carpathian Ruthenia Jewish communities as part of fund raising and relief efforts for Eastern European Jewry. Further trips were undertaken at the behest of the AJDC to record the incredible poverty and suffering of Jewish life in Warsaw, Krakow, Lodz, Munkacs and Bialystok among other locations. These images are among Vishniac’s most well known.

One 1938 project was “A Pictorial Visit to the Jewish Children in Poland,” a collection of 90 photographs and captions by Vishniac that document the “hunger, fear and disease that stalk through the Jewish streets in Poland.” In this photographic essay Vishniac charts the progress from urban poverty to the relative joy of the AJDC summer camps that gave Jewish children a respite from their grim homes.

Sarah (Warsaw 1939) photograph by Roman Vishniac.  © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Sarah (Warsaw 1939) photograph by Roman Vishniac. © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography.

His work of these years was extensively used for AJDC fundraising as well as an award winning 1983 book A Vanished World. His uncanny ability to engage and earn the trust of his subjects, child and adult alike, is not to be underestimated. Many of the images are of children and adults living in squalid basement dwellings. “Since the basement had no heat, Sarah had to stay in bed all winter. Her father painted the flowers for her, the only flowers of her childhood. Warsaw 1939.” It should be noted that in light of research by curator Maya Benton, many of Vishniac’s captions accompanying the images cannot be taken as factual reflections of the photos, rather they express the general plight of the oppressed Jewish population.

Exactly how Vishniac, a non-observant Jew, gained access to so many Hasidic homes, synagogues and houses of study is an open question. Generally these communities are suspicious of outsiders and some even consider photography a forbidden kind of graven image. Nonetheless, he managed to open many doors and gain the trust to capture an important slice of Jewish life. In Munkacs he records that he happened upon a man, a cantor, who became his guide.

Jewish Schoolchildren, Munkacs (1935-38) photograph by Roman Vishniac.  © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Jewish Schoolchildren, Munkacs (1935-38) photograph by Roman Vishniac. © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography.

The image of Jewish Schoolchildren, Munkacs (1935-38), one of Vishniac’s most published, brims over with childish enthusiasm and curiosity, most probably due to the presence of the photographer himself. Yet the other narrative here of the clean-shaven man grasping the arm of the surprised yeshiva student echoes the kind of modern intrusion that the entire scene represents. It is a magical moment of revelation that only a highly sensitive eye could know how to capture.

Vishniac was an activist passionately dedicated to helping his fellow Jews by documenting to the outside world the terrors of living under Nazi rule. In October 1938 the SS deported 17,000 Polish Jews who had been living in Germany. They were herded to the Polish border and dumped in Zbaszyn and other border towns. Winter was approaching and conditions were terrible. Vishniac slipped into the town to document the conditions and then escaped back out to send his films to AJDC in Geneva to publicize the conditions.

Nettie Stub (1938) photograph by Roman Vishniac.  © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography.

Nettie Stub (1938) photograph by Roman Vishniac . © Mara Vishniac Kohn. Courtesy International Center of Photography.

He took a tender photograph of 11 year old Nettie Stub peering out from a bunk bed that was widely broadcast by the Red Cross. Later that year the Red Cross arranged for her to be rescued and brought to Sweden to safety. As I was viewing the exhibition I was told that Nettie’s granddaughter had visited the show and confirmed that her 86-year-old grandmother was still living in the Bronx. There is no doubt that Vishniac’s image saved her life.

He subsequently documented Zionist youth training in 1939 Netherlands, Jewish refugees and displaced persons camps in 1947 Germany and France, the vast destruction of Berlin among many other subjects. In his final years he returned to his love of biology, becoming a pioneer in the field of microphotoscopy. Roman Vishniac was a remarkable photographer and this exhibition deepens and expands our understanding of his work. His combination of a passion for documentation and a finely tuned aesthetic eye mark him as a modern master, the vast corpus of whose work we are just beginning to understand.

About the Author: Richard McBee is a painter and writer on Jewish Art. Contact him at rmcbee@nyc.rr.com


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