Obituary: Dmitri Kessel

Dmitri Kessel, photojournalist, photographer: born Kiev 20 August 1902; married 1964 Shirley Farmer; died Southampton, New York 26 March 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".

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

East15 Acting School: Finance and Contracts Officer

£20,781 to £24,057 per annum: East15 Acting School: The post involves general ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Geography Teacher

£150 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: A mainstream Secondary school in C...

Austen Lloyd: Practice / HR Manager - Somerset

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: A rare and exciting opportunity for a Practice...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: This company provides global satellite communi...

Day In a Page

Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen