It’s the photographs of children that break your heart in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s “Reflections From the Heart: Photographs by David Seymour.” Many photographs stem from the 1948 UNESCO and UNICEF series known as “Chim’s Children.” “Chim” (pronounced Shim) is a compressed French version of Mr. Seymour’s original last name of Szymin. His assignment was to shoot and document the war’s effects on children.
There’s a wrenching photo of a little girl cuddling a headless doll. Yet the most heartbreaking is a young girl traumatized by life in a German concentration camp. Tereska had been in a German concentration camp where she witnessed tortures and killings that no child should witness. In the portrait, Mr. Seymour moved in close to her face and eyes as she depicted “home” on a blackboard. Her attempt resulted in just a jumble of lines.
Once you see those eyes, you’ll never forget them.
Despite this often intense sadness, Mr. Seymour (1911-1956) intended his photographs to anticipate a better world.
For example, he photographed children who were injured by war playing ball not as cripples but as boys having fun. Another photograph shows children forming a luminous circle while enjoying themselves in a Budapest suburban park. Mr. Seymour also shot a 4-year-old Greek delighting in her first pair of shoes. Sunlight optimistically frames an illegitimate newborn lying in a pram among German ruins.
In this small retrospective of 75 Seymour photographs, the images of children leap out when placed with other Seymour photographs of the French working-class life and labor movements (1933), the Spanish Civil War (1936), World War II (1939-1945), postwar life in Greece and Italy (1951-1952), the founding of the state of Israel (1948) and Suez Canal crisis (1956) taken during his short 23 years as a photographer.
As with his later portraits of Italian actress Sophia Loren posing as a pinup girl, Gina Lollobrigida rehearsing for the film “Trapeze” in Rome, and world-famous art historian Bernard Berenson quizzically examining a sexy sculpted nude in Rome’s Borghese Gallery, he asks viewers to connect with the subject.
Organized by the Albin O. Kuhn Library Gallery, University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), in collaboration with the Corcoran Gallery of Art and the George Eastman House, Rochester (N.Y.), the exhibit is the first to display Mr. Seymour’s more run-of-the-mill color photography as seen in the exhibit’s portraits of Kirk Douglas, Miss Loren and Miss Lollobrigida, said Corcoran curator Philip Brookman.
With children, Mr. Seymour most often positioned himself to shoot them at their own level. Exhibit curator Tom Beck of UMBC explains in the catalog, “This was one of the ways he heightened a sense of connection with their world.”
From a cultured Polish family of distinguished Jewish publishers, Mr. Seymour first studied printing technology in Leipzig, Germany, and planned to go into the family business. But with Nazi Germany’s rise, he left Warsaw, Poland, to study chemistry and physics at Paris’ Sorbonne. Subsequently, so as not to drain resources at home, he turned to photography in 1933 to earn a living.
Despite an often humorous, ongoing competition and camaraderie with peer photographers Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson — Mr. Capa was the first to found a photographer-run international photojournalism agency called Magnum Photos Inc. — Mr. Seymour became a much-sought-after photographer.
Mr. Seymour was gunned down in 1956 while traveling by jeep to cover a Port Said, Egypt, wounded-prisoner-of-war exchange.
At Mr. Seymour’s funeral, Mr. Cartier-Bresson eulogized the photographer by saying: “Chim picked up his camera the way a doctor takes his stethoscope out of his bag, applying his condition to the diagnosis of the heart. His own was vulnerable.”
It was this sensitivity and empathy that made him one of the 20th-century’s most celebrated photographers.
WHAT: “Reflections From the Heart: Photographs by David Seymour”
WHERE: Corcoran Gallery of Art, New York Avenue at 17th Street Northwest
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and until 10 p.m. on Thursdays, closed on Mondays and Tuesdays but open on holiday Mondays through June 4.
TICKETS: $8 for adults, $6 for seniors and U.S. military personnel, $4 for students with current ID, $3 for gallery member guests; free for members and children under 12. Admission is “pay as you can” on Thursdays after 5 p.m.