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Smile And Say Cheese: Children Maimed By War

Reflections From The Heart:

Photographs By David Seymour (Chim)

The Corcoran Gallery of Art



Children playing with dolls generally make good photo ops. They fit well on wall calendars, interspersed among images of flowers and colorful birds, to be gazed at while listening to CDs with sounds of the rainforest. But photographer David Seymour photographed a different kind of child: the vulnerable, persecuted sort that frolics not on picturesque jungle gyms but in war zones. “Children Playing with Something That Was Once a Doll, Naples” (1948) is a perfect example. The children are smiling, as they should be. But their clothes are tattered, and the “doll” with which they are playing has been so deformed that it is unrecognizable as a doll without the help of the photograph title.


 The photograph is one of many that Seymour Chim – pronounced Shim to his friends – captured when he was commissioned by the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF) to photograph post-war European children in Poland, Hungary, Germany, Czechoslovakia, Greece and Italy. Several of these photographs appeared this spring in the show, “Reflections from the Heart: Photographs by David Seymour (Chim),” at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The other images of Italian children include “Children Maimed by War, Villa Savoia, Rome” and “Young Neapolitans in a Reformatory, Naples.”


 Chim was born Dawid Szymin in Warsaw, Poland in 1911 to a Jewish family that published Hebrew and Yiddish books. The Szymin family publishing company published Sholem Asch’s The Shtetl for the first time and translated writers like Mark Twain, Heinrich Heine and Guy de Maupassant into Yiddish. Chim’s parents died in 1942 in a ghetto created by the Nazis in Otwock, Poland.


 Chim was in many ways a war photographer. He covered the Front Populaire in France in 1935 and the Spanish Civil War in 1936. In 1943, he was sent to England by the U.S. army (he was a volunteer) to interpret aerial photographs. He even ran with soldiers in Spain in 1938, photographing them with his Leica portable camera. Chim died tragically in 1956 when Egyptian sniper fire drove his and his partner’s car off the road and into the Suez Canal while he was covering a prisoner exchange during the Suez Canal crisis.


 Many of Chim’s photographs are troubling, if not downright terrifying. “Tereska, a Child in a Center for Disturbed Children Produced These Scrawls as a Picture of Home” (1948) is a photograph of a young girl (named Tereska) who was asked to draw her conception of home. Behind her is a large chalkboard, upon which her drawing is displayed. The drawing is entirely composed of violent strokes that delineate the terrible reality in which Tereska grew up.



Chim (David Seymour), “Tereska, a Child in a Center for Disturbed Children Produced These Scrawls as a Picture of Home” (1948). Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Ben Shneiderman.



 “Young Girl in a Sanatorium for Jewish Children, Otwock, Poland” (1948) shows a young girl infected with tuberculosis resting on a hospital bed. Other children with other illnesses, which the photograph title does not reveal, surround the girl. The image has an optimistic component, as the child is not alone. But the fact that Seymour’s parents died in an Otwock ghetto (they owned a summer home in Otwock) casts a forbidding air about the work.


 But not all of Chim’s photographs are so dark. “First Child Born in the Settlement of Alma, Israel” (1951) captures a smiling immigrant father, Eliezer Trito, holding up his firstborn infant, Miriam. The landscape is bleak but the image carries optimism, as a young generation is born to uphold the land conquered by its predecessors. “Young Woman Preparing for Sentry Duty, Haifa, Israel” (1951) is also a lighter image. The Israeli soldier carries a rifle slung over her shoulder. The confidence of the woman – though she carries a lethal weapon – shows a Jew who is not helpless and oppressed like some of the photographs of Jewish children.


Chim (David Seymour), “First Child Born in Alma” (1951).” Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. Gift of Ben Shneiderman.



 Just as “First Child Born” shows a promising new Israeli generation, “Wedding in the Border Regions” (1952) shows a wedding ceremony with Israeli settlers. Pitchforks and rifles hold up the chupah (wedding canopy), a move that accesses the unique combination of sacred and profane in the Israeli settlements.


 But despite Chim’s tragic death and his photographs of war-struck children, many of the photographs are less somber affairs that don’t address war at all. “Peggy Guggenheim at the Palazzo Venier dei Leoni, Venice” (1950) shows the celebrity collector sitting on the deck of her Venice home on the Grand Canal. Guggenheim wears enormous gold-rimmed butterfly sunglasses, and her four dogs sit on her lap and beside her. The photograph manages to capture a playful Peggy Guggenheim, even though she hides her expression behind her sunglasses.


 “Pablo Picasso in front of Guernica, Paris” (1937) shows Picasso in front of his famous painting in a way that will surprise many viewers who haven’t seen the painting in person. It is much larger in scale than it looks in art books. Picasso stands in the center of the bottom of the photograph. Chim captures the rightmost portion of Guernica, which depicts a man with an overturned head and his hands up in the air. Picasso, who stands directly under the painted man, resembles the painted face with his intense stare and comb-over. As Tom Beck correctly observes in David Seymour (Chim) (Phaidon, 2005), Picasso appears to be more a component of the painting than its creator contemplating his work.


 And throughout the children, war and celebrity photos, Chim captures his images with a personal, gentle touch that finds humanity and personality both in devastating war and behind the cloudy sunglasses of Peggy Guggenheim.


 Menachem Wecker is a painter and assistant editor of B’nai B’rith Magazine in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com


 “Reflections from the Heart: Photographs by David Seymour” will hang at the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, from September 11 – December 10, 2006. For more information, see http://aok.lib.umbc.edu/gallery  or call 410-455-2270.

About the Author: Menachem Wecker, who blogs on faith and art for the Houston Chronicle at http://blogs.chron.com/iconia, welcomes comments at mwecker@gmail.com.

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