The International Center of Photography’s exhibition “We Went Back: Photographs from Europe 1933 – 1956 by Chim” is up for one more week, till May 5. Admirers of photography, of Israel and of Ingrid Bergman should visit while it’s still possible.
Chim, born Dawid Szymin, is one of the great artists of photographic reportage of the mid-twentieth century. (His nom de camera, pronounced Shim, was taken out of kindness to non-Polish speakers; in English he published as David Seymour.) Thanks in great part to earlier exhibitions mounted by ICP, his renown has grown recently. This show only enriches his reputation.
“We Went Back” begins in 1930s Paris where Chim was involved with the failed Popular Front. These photos, showing the effects of Constructivism, are the most propagandistic. The gallery follows him to the Spanish Civil War, ending with Republican soldiers fleeing the Spain they had lost to Franco. The title story – “We Went Back” – comes from a 1947 project for UNESCO in which Chim traveled Europe, visiting child survivors of the war.
A less grim section devoted to postwar Italy follows, with some portraits appended. One of the most charming shows Ingrid Bergman toting her very young twins, Ingrid and Isabella Rossellini, each baby in her own pannier. In 1951 and 1952 Chim visited Israel, where a famous picture shows an outdoor wedding, the chuppah supported by pitchforks and rifles. The exhibition ends with a few images from Egypt where Chim, covering the Suez Crisis, was killed in 1956.
World War II is a huge gap: Chim was in the US Army, working on aerial photo reconnaissance in England. But the absence evokes the war’s effect: “We went back” to find the Europe that Chim had hoped, in the ’30s, to be destined for a socialist future, blown to pieces. One feels that Israel gave him comfort: certainly these photographs, showing women praying on a beach at Rosh Hashanah, men and women dancing at a wedding, and a 1952 celebration of Yom HaAtzmaut, among other subjects, carry a special emotional charge.
It’s almost impossible not to compare Chim’s work with that of Roman Vishniac, of which there’s a wonderful retrospective on the lower level of ICP. Both photographers cover some of the same places at the same time – Germany after the war, for instance –, but their work is complementary. Vishniac is in love with the human face; his concern is to record the individual in context. Chim has a wider focus: for him the context was the point. While he’s keenly aware of the people in the camera, his aim is to convey the whole scene, with all the emotion and information an image can carry.
Elizabeth Denlinger curates a collection of rare books and manuscripts at the New York Public Library and is at work on a novel about a boarding school in 1955.