OBITUARY : Tim Gidal

Nigel Trow
Friday 15 November 1996 00:02

Tim Gidal was one of the founders of modern photo-journalism.

His first picture story, "The Vagabond Congress", was published by the Munchner Illustrierte Presse, a forerunner of Picture Post, in 1929, the year he entered the University of Munich in 1929 to read History.

He was born Nachum Gidalewitsch, in Munich, in 1909, of a Russian father and Lithuanian mother, and he came to photography through having empty pockets. Like many university students, he was hard up and when introduced to Paul Feinhals, the editor of the Munchner Illustrierte, he grabbed the opportunity to earn money.

Photo-journalism was invented in Germany as a result of Oskar Barnack's little Leica camera. This beautiful instrument, introduced by the Ernst Leitz optical company in 1924, enabled photographs to be taken under circumstances previously impossible with the large-format cameras popularly used by the press in the 1920s. The potential of the Leica, and its competitor the Ermanox, was grasped by those who, like Gidal, saw the new crop of illustrated magazines that were appearing in Germany as vehicles for their personal expression and as a livelihood.

Few of them were interested in photography for its own sake. The doyen of them all, the eminently discreet and respectable lawyer Alfred Saloman, used his Ermanox camera as a means of access to those with political power and, among other nascent photo- journalists contemporary with Gidal, only Kurt Hutton and Martin Muncacszi had received any formal training in photography. For Gidal, as for Felix Man, Umbo, Walter Bosshardt, Andre Kertesz, Wolfgang Weber and others, the camera was simply a means to an end.

In 1935, after six years in which he spent more time photographing than studying, Nachum Gidal was awarded his doctorate by the University of Basle, where he had removed himself in 1933 as a consequence of a growing Nazi presence within the university in Munich.

Gidal had been brought up in a religious family and had strong Zionist convictions from an early age. In Germany he had been active in the Blau Weiss Youth Movement, and a meeting with Chaim Weizmann in 1932 had convinced him that he should emigrate to Palestine at the first opportunity. Two months after the award of his doctorate, in May 1935, he went for a second time to Palestine and 12 months later settled permanently in Jerusalem.

For two years he struggled to make a living as a photo- journalist in a Palestinian Jewish community more interested in kitsch propaganda pictures than honest documentary. Eventually, however, his luck turned and he sold a story on the conflict in the Holy Land to Stefan Lorant, the charismatic editor of the newly thriving magazine Picture Post. On the basis of this and an encouraging telegram from Lorant, Gidal moved to London.

In 1940, after two years in Britain, where he had over 40 picture stories published in Picture Post - which ranged from stories on the life of the unemployed to a day in a beauty school - he returned by sea to Palestine. This arduous trip round the Cape to Bombay, then to Basrah and overland through Iraq to Jerusalem, produced many memorable photographs. But wartime Jerusalem bored Gidal, and in 1942 he joined the Eighth Army as a photographer. It was here that he acquired his sobriquet "Tim" from fellow officers during wartime service with the army's magazine Parade, a morale-boosting publication modelled on the successful German military picture magazine Signal. Together with Bela Zoia, another talented photographer, he produced for Parade a regular stream of photographs and stories. Given the honorary rank of Captain, Gidal was turned loose to cover North Africa, the eastern Mediterranean and the wider Middle East before being sent, in February 1944, to Mountbatten's headquarters in Burma.

Here he contracted typhus and was returned to Jerusalem, where he married Sonia Epstein, joined the Jewish Brigade, got bored again and was subsequently invalided out of the army in time to miss the Italian campaign and all that followed.

The problems facing post-war Palestine caused Gidal to think carefully about his future; should he continue as a photo-journalist or take up a more secure career as an academic. His training as an historian certainly inclined him towards an intellectual life, but it was the birth of his son, Peter, later to become a reputable art theorist and avant-garde film- maker in London and the United States, which decided the matter and in 1947 the family moved to New York, where Gidal eventually joined the staff of the prestigious New School for Social Research. He remained in the US until 1968, when he and his wife separated. He moved to Zurich and they divorced in 1970, after which he returned to live in Jerusalem.

In retrospect, the decision to go to America was a mistake. Despite the fact that he and his wife achieved considerable financial success there through the publication of books for young people on village communities around the world, Gidal's pursuit of academic respectability ruined him as a photographer. Although his scholarly abilities allowed him to write Modern Photojournalism, Origin and Evolution 1910-30 (1972), the definitive history of modern picture reporting, his distinctive photographer's eye was dimmed, something ultimately to hurt him more than anything else. Nevertheless, after returning from America he contined to build up a remarkable collection of historical photographs concerning the Jews in Europe and in Palestine, photographs and researches which resulted in numerous fine books, including Eternal Jerusalem and The Freudians.

For the last 20 years of his life, supported by his second wife, Pia, Tim Gidal sought to establish his place in the history of photography. An indefatigable traveller and organiser, he had his work exhibited widely throughout Europe and Israel yet one always sensed that he felt neglected by historians. An old squabble with Felix Man still festered and his relationship with the photo-historian Helmut Gernsheim was often stormy.

He should not have worried. The first 10 years of photo- journalism were perhaps the best. Between 1929 and the outbreak of war, there was a flowering of photographs that were aware of the orders of modernism and at the same time penetrated the surfaces of the world to make plain the human silences that art and poetry express. In this domain Tim Gidal's photographs excelled and there can be little doubt that his place in the medium's history is secure.

Nigel Trow

Nachum Ignaz Gidalewitsch (Tim Gidal), photojournalist: born Munich 18 May 1909; married 1944 Sonia Epstein (marriage dissolved 1970; one son), 1980 Pia Lis; died Jerusalem 4 October 1996.

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