The faces from troubled times

Critic's Corner

David Seymour photos in UMBC exhibit cut to the heart

Critic's Corner//Art

September 20, 2006|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,Sun Art Critic

David Seymour, known as "Chim," was one of the pioneering photojournalists of the 20th century, renowned for his compassionate portrayals of the innocent victims of war.

Now his distinguished career as a founder of the Magnum picture agency and inspiration for a new standard of humanistic reporting in postwar magazine journalism is the subject of a terrific retrospective at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

Reflections from the Heart: Photographs by David Seymour includes about 75 of his photographs, from his early pictures of Paris and Spain in the 1930s, through his sensitive portraits of displaced children after World War II and his final images of the Middle East, taken shortly before he was killed on the job during the Suez Crisis of 1956.

Seymour, like his Magnum colleagues Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa, was a master of the miniature camera who used the diminutive Leica as an extension of his eye. But unlike Cartier-Bresson's surreal vision that delighted in odd and unexpected juxtapositions, or Capa's dramatic images of war, Seymour used his camera to probe the inner recesses of the human heart.

Seymour had a special empathy for children. His pictures of World War II orphans are poignant studies of youthful innocence sacrificed to the grim realities of global war, and they include one of his most powerful portraits, Tereska, a Child in a Residence for Disturbed Children, Poland (1948).

The picture shows Tereska, a wide-eyed orphan of about 8 or 9, standing in front of a blackboard on which she has been asked to draw a picture of her home.

But the board is covered with violent, illegible scrawls, and the girl's glassy stare toward the camera seems fixed not on the photographer but on the frightful internal demons that torment her.

In her groundbreaking 1992 study Trauma and Recovery, psychiatrist Judith Herman examined the violently disordered psychic and behavioral states that result from severe mental or emotional stress or physical injury.

"The ordinary response to atrocities is to banish them from consciousness," Herman writes. "Certain violations of the social compact are too terrible to utter aloud: this is the meaning of the word unspeakable."

Seymour's portrait evokes an abomination too terrifying to be described even in pictures. Tereska's confused drawing represents a reality so shattering one almost wishes to avert one's eyes from the horror in the child's gaze.

The exhibition also includes Seymour's portraits of movie stars and celebrities -- among them conductor Arturo Toscanini, art historian Bernard Berenson, photographer Richard Avedon and actor Kirk Douglas.

His photographs of famous actresses include the 21-year-old Joan Collins in a little black dress, Audrey Hepburn as the classic ingenue, Gina Lollobrigida in a provocative pink sweater and a 19-year-old Sophia Loren, whose smoldering eyes regard the camera with such dangerous allure one wonders how the photographer ever managed to tear himself away from the sight.

"Reflections from the Heart" runs through Dec. 10 at UMBC's Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery, 1000 Hilltop Circle, Catonsville. Call 410-455-2270 or visit

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