[Civilians in an air-raid shelter, Minorca, Spain], December 1938. © David Seymour/Magnum Photos
It’s a strange photograph, something like a class portrait from a school under siege. In it, the pitted walls of an air raid shelter frame a dozen or so children and their caretakers behind them, peering out of the darkness. A naked light bulb casts a dim glow over the students as they stare at the photographer, hands resting at their sides. Their gaze draws the viewer into and down the shelter’s length. Do their faces betray fear, or a wary concern over the disruption of their daily routine?
Even though it doesn’t show maimed bodies or stiffened corpses, the image is a war photograph. Taken on the Mediterranean island of Minorca in December of 1938, it is a strikingly humanizing missive sent from the short-lived Second Spanish Republic’s battle for survival against Generalissimo Francisco Franco and his fascist forces. More generally, it shows what war was like for much of Europe’s peoples in the 1930s and 1940s: random periods of defenseless waiting, sometimes terminated by deaths of varying duration. The photographer was a 27-year-old Polish exile shooting for a large European audience, and the children’s collective stare turns him into a medium for an intense identification between Spain’s afflicted and the world beyond the shelter’s spot-lit darkness. Why did this photographer—working in a distinctly heroic partisan aesthetic tradition—focus on civilians rather than soldiers at the front?
Part of the answer has to do with the world he was photographing. In the course of his transformation from Dawid Szymin, the son of a publisher of Yiddish and Hebrew books; to Chim, committed photographer of French Popular Front politics; to David Seymour, citizen of the United States and veteran of its army, two conflicts had played themselves out across the globe, successively more grotesque in their technologies of killing and annihilation and the industrial scale on which they were used. Europe was in ruins at the end of those wars. Chim perceptively adapted his camera eye to the changed circumstances, and his best images offered possibilities for empathy that are distinctly original.
An exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York City, on view through May 5, showcases Chim’s photography and surveys the magazines that were so central to his practice as a photojournalist. Negatives recovered in 2007 from the long-lost “Mexican Suitcase” [see “A Secret Archive,” January 24, 2011], along with never-before-seen color prints, add to the wealth of images culled from the collections of Chim’s extended family and the ICP. (The Minorca image was a gift to the center from Eileen Shneiderman, Chim’s older sister, and her son Ben.) Although Chim’s stylistic approach to his subjects changed over the course of the tumultuous wartime years, the heart of his work, a palpable and singular identification with ordinary people and their experience of violent upheaval, remains hauntingly consistent.