Obituary: Dmitri Kessel
Thursday 06 April 1995
Dmitri Kessel's story is a classic tale of the migr photojournalist. A farmer's son, born in Kiev just after the turn of the century, he began experimenting with photography as a boy, using a box camera to document friends, family and everyday life. His childhood was much affected by the emerging turmoil of Eastern Europe - during the First World War, he was deeply involved with the Ukrainian National Movement. As a young man he witnessed a violent battle between Ukrainian villagers and Polish soldiers, and recorded the atrocities on film.
Far earlier than many of his contemporaries, he became aware of photography's power as a witness to history. Many years later, as a staff photographer on Life magazine, he became renowned for his coverage of the world's war zones, working on the front line in the liberation of Europe and reporting back from the bitter conflict in the Congo.
Dmitri Kessel was trained as a soldier, attending the Paltava Military Academy in Russia before serving as a cavalry officer in the Ukrainian and Red Armies in the early 1920s. After his time in the military was over, he studied industrial chemistry in Moscow, but was soon to join the flow of emigrants to the United States. By 1925, he had settled in New York City.
Few Eastern European emigrants found the transition to life in the US an easy one. Kessel took part-time jobs, working in the fur industry and as a correspondent for Russian-language newspapers before enrolling on a course at the Rabinovitch School of Photography in 1934. His training in photography coincided with rapid changes within the medium itself. The coming of the new miniature 35mm Leica camera, enabled photographers to work quickly and unobtrusively in the most difficult situations; the consequent emergence of the great American picture magazines Life and Fortune provided a perfect platform for new young photojournalists including Margaret Bourke-White, Alfred Eisenstaedt and Kessel.
Like Bourke-White, Kessel was introduced to the disciplines of photojournalism as a freelance for Fortune, a new magazine of business and industry. Edited by Henry Luce, soon to become Life's driving force, Fortune "broke away", as Bourke-White wrote, "from the practice most magazines had followed in the past of picking up illustrations at random . . . instead, pictures and words should be conscious partners". From the mid-1930s, Kessel's status as a photojournalist was assured; in 1942, he became a war correspondent for Life magazine, joining in its drive to produce a heady mix of dramatic pictures and incisive text to give America a window on the world.
In the post-war years, Kessel worked almost exclusively for Life (based at the Paris bureau), and travelled the globe, from Hungary to China, Palestine to India, to Spain, Ceylon and Japan, recording a troubled world of conflicting ideologies and territorial disputes. In 1950, an assignment to produce a human interest story on the Aga Khan's wedding turned into an important piece on the growing tension between Iran and the Soviet Union. A gruelling and often dangerous six-week trip with the journalist Dita Comacho produced over 5,000 photographs and an eight-page cover story in Life.
But Kessel was alive not only to the tragedy and pain of human beings, but also to their capacity to create wonders. From the mid-1950s he constructed a photographic document of some of Europe's finest religious architecture, including St Mark's, in Venice, and the splendour of the Vatican.
Kessel was not destined to become one of Life's photographic stars but nevertheless his place in the history of photojournalism is assured. Asked why he put his life in danger when photographing the Greek Civil War, he replied without pretension and quite simply that "somebody had to".
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