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Beating Swords Into Photographs

David Seymour’s photograph “Wedding in the Border Regions” (1952) has something of the prophet Micah in it. The picture doesn’t beat swords into plowshares and spears into pruninghooks, but it does sculpt a chupah of pitchforks and rifles. This move of combining the sacred and the profane captures a fundamental aesthetic of the Israeli settlers. But Seymour’s photography — the subject of a March exhibition at Washington D.C.’s Corcoran Gallery of Art — revolutionized the art through its formal components far more than through its content.

Born Dawid Szymin in 1911 in Warsaw, David Seymour initially anticipated a career in the sciences before launching his photography career under the name Chim, a shortened French version of his name. Chim’s father, Benjamin, ran a Hebrew and Yiddish printing press in Warsaw that first published Sholem Asch’s “The Shtetl” and translated significant writers like Mark Twain, Guy de Maupassant and Heinrich Heine into Yiddish. World War I displaced the Seymour family to Minsk and then to Odessa, and World War II found Chim living in Paris. After becoming a United States citizen and entering the war on the American front in 1942, he adopted the name David Robert Seymour to protect his parents from Nazi retaliation. (His parents later died in a Polish ghetto.) For Chim, war and photography would always go hand in hand; his career ended prematurely in 1956, when he was killed by Egyptian soldier fire while covering a prisoner exchange during the Suez Canal crisis.

Chim’s life story unfolded the way his photographs did: intensely. Where many photographs create an encounter between viewer and scene, Chim’s wedding photograph presupposes such an encounter. By cropping the foreground, Chim doesn’t allow viewers to get their bearings by comfortably walking into the picture; instead, viewers find themselves so close to the pictorial figures that if they drew any closer, they’d bump right into the wedding guests. Time then becomes a vital pictorial element. Viewers don’t enter, for they are already there. The photos recalls Andrew Wyeth’s painting “Christina’s World” (1948), which shows a young woman lying in the prairie grass, reaching out toward a country house that sits somewhat unstably atop a high horizon line. Wyeth’s work disorients viewers, who feel like they’ve entered a horror tale like Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in mid-story. Is the woman resting or paralyzed? Does something evil lurk in the barn, or does it simply contain innocent horses and hay? Like Wyeth’s ambiguous painting, Chim’s images make viewers feel like they’ve missed the first operatic act and are forever doomed to play uninitiated outsiders.

Chim’s mood works particularly well for his war images. “Children Maimed by War” (1948) depicts children who were disfigured during the war, “either directly or through accidents, such as playing with leftover ammunition,” according to Tom Beck’s recent monograph, “David Seymour (Chim)” (Phaidon Press). Chim’s image recalls John Singer Sargent’s World War I painting, “Gassed” (1918). Sargent, who famously wouldn’t leave home without his paint box or easel — or his umbrella, to shield the sun — was a regular sight to the soldiers, whom he captured in paint in the mustard gas aftermath in “Gassed.” Like Sargent, Chim painted battle scenes on site, even running with the troops to photograph them with his Leica camera.

Chim’s in-your-face photograph aesthetic is not simply a compositional gimmick. By creating narratives in which viewers enter in the middle of the story, and by cropping out the foreground, Chim manages to avoid the pitfalls typically endemic to photography: sentimentalization and stylization. He does in photography what his contemporary abstract painters did on canvas: He abandons the classical idea of the landscape painting as a window into a scene, whereby viewers look through the painting plane into an image. Instead, Chim treats his photographs as surfaces that viewers look at — forms, colors and lines. “Young Girl in a Sanatorium for Jewish Children” (1948) shows a young girl suffering from tuberculosis lying on a hospital bed with her head wrapped. Other children lie abed in the background. Viewers can’t help but feel sorry for the unfortunate child. But the forms are so bold and so abstract that the picture can’t last as a picture of sick children, instead dissolving into pure forms and abstraction.

And perhaps the best metaphor for Chim’s abstract photography is his portrait “Bernard Berenson” (1955). Chim photographs Berenson at age 90 — looking like Freud with a white hat — as he looks at a nude sculpted by Antonio Canova that lies on a couch. Chim underscores historian Berenson’s distaste for sexuality and modern art by showing him contemplating a classical nude. But by composing a decidedly anti-classical composition whereby the nude rudely turns her back on the viewer and blocks out the bulk of Berenson’s person, Chim critiques the classical mimetic model, replacing it instead with his own abrasive realism that stems from both his Jewish identity and his photojournalist style.

Menachem Wecker is a painter and writer on Jewish arts who resides in Washington, D.C.


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