Putting the world in the picture

A new documentary takes a fascinating look at the life and times of influential picture editor John G Morris, still working at 96. Richard Fitzpatrick spoke to him

THE invisible hand of John G Morris runs over much of the 20th century. Aged 96 and living in Paris for the last 30 years, the veteran picture editor has been responsible for publishing many of the images that have defined the world since the Second World War.

These include Robert Capa’s pictures of the D-Day landings on Omaha Beach, June 6, 1944, which Morris published while working as picture editor of the London bureau of Life Magazine (see panel). In 1972, while piloting the picture desk of the New York Times, he also published a photograph which shocked the world — of a naked, hysterical nine-year-old girl fleeing a napalm attack in Vietnam.

Morris’s life and achievements are captured in Irish film-maker Cathy Pearson’s documentary Get the Picture? which premiered at Cork Film Festival in November and screens in Dublin next week as part of the Jameson International Film Festival. It makes for captivating viewing, and includes contributions from war photographers such as Don McCullin, Peter Turnley and Paolo Pellegrin.

Morris started as an office boy at Life Magazine in 1937, having graduated from university in his hometown, Chicago, but America’s entry into war — his 25th birthday was on the day of the Pearl Harbour attack, December 7, 1941 — changed his life irrevocably. He left behind his glamorous job in Hollywood for a posting to London in 1943. He fetched up in Belfast and Dublin for an assignment with a photographer a year later. “We went on a military plane to cover the arrival of American troops in Belfast, which was quite something,” he says. “It was a staging area before D-Day. The two of us took civilian clothes along with our uniforms, and then when we finished our story near Belfast we took the train to Dublin for the weekend. It was like changing sides — the flag of the German Embassy was flying. It was fantastic.”

Morris was based in Paris for much of the Second World War. Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson, who helped found Magnum Photos in 1947, were close friends of his, and made him executive editor of the freelance photography cooperative in 1952, a position he holds to this day.

Morris says there are three things a photographer needs: an eye; a brain, to know the significance of what you’re shooting; and a heart, a feeling for people. Capa had all three, he says, and in particular a warmth for people. But Cartier-Bresson had a temper; he’d pull out a penknife and wield it threateningly.

“Henri was stronger in the brains and weaker in the heart,” says Morris. “Unlike Capa, who got to know the people he was photographing, Henri stood back. He was the observer. He seldom spoke to his subjects. He studied painting under André Lhote. What I learnt from Henri was a sense of composition. He was very much influenced by the great painters. He used to go to the Louvre when he was free.”

One of the most jarring passages in the documentary deals with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Japan in 1945. Morris feels the press let the world down by showing it as a stunning atom cloud, by playing up its warped aesthetic beauty, rather than focusing on the carnage it wrought. He concedes that — like most photojournalists — he was a willing propagandist for triumph in the Second World War but has since come to believe that there is no victory in war. “It is inexcusable,” he says.

“I was well aware of the power of censorship,” he says. “For example, in London I received a package of pictures through a diplomatic courier from Stockholm, which showed the human devastation of Berlin caused by Allied bombing, of pictures that showed stacks of bodies piled in a gymnasium, fresh from an air raid. I tried to send those onto New York. I took them to the censor, who happened that day to be British — he could have been Canadian or American — and he said, ‘These are very interesting. You can have them after the war’.”

Morris’s professional mantra was “get the truth out”. The documentary offers an interesting meditation on the role of photojournalism in mobilising public opinion, for instance, in the US against the war in Vietnam. Morris was responsible for getting Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph of a general executing a Vietcong prisoner on the streets of Saigon in February 1969 on the front page of the New York Times.

Get the Picture? also ponders the lengths war photographers go to get their quarry. One interviewee, the photographer Stanley Greene, recounts a blazing argument he and a colleague had with British photographer, Anthony Loyd, in Chechnya while the pair snapped people who had been hit by a rocket. Loyd was asking why they wouldn’t help the injured instead of photographing them.

Greene and his companion turned on Loyd: “Frankly speaking, what the fuck are you doing here if you’re not here to cover this?” says Greene in the documentary. “You should go home. You are here to document what’s going on here. That’s your job. Or you don’t come.”

Greene moved to Paris around the same time as Morris. About 20 years ago, he was at a party at Morris’s house, showing him some fashion pictures he’d taken. “I said to him, ‘Stanley, why do you do this crap?’” says Morris, “because he had told me how much he admired Gene Smith, who was a very serious photographer. That remark changed Stanley’s life. He abandoned the fashion pictures and went out to become a war correspondent, which has almost killed him, but I was very happy with his contribution to the film.”

Get the Picture? also offers a glimpse into Morris’s personal life. The film opens with sun-kissed Parisian scenes of Morris with Patricia Trocmé, his lover, ambling along the Seine. “I was only 93 when I fell in love with an 84-year-old,” he says, laughing.

Morris has five children. He has outlived three wives, one who died from multiple sclerosis, one from cancer, and one from old age. He says he can’t resist being an optimist. Cathy Pearson, the film’s director/producer, credits his insatiable curiosity and interest in current affairs for his vitality and youthfulness.

“He’s razor sharp,” she says. “He has a memory that can recall the finest of details. He’s often described as a walk-in library. When he tells you about something, he will recall the date, time and place that it happened with exact precision.”

Capturing the D-Day landings

Robert Capa was such a good friend of John G Morris’s that he still refers to the late photographer as “my Hungarian brother”. Capa is remembered as one of the great war photographers. His photograph of a falling soldier in the Spanish Civil War is superseded in fame only by the series he took on the beaches of Normandy, in the D-Day landings of Tuesday, Jun 6, 1944.

Capa was one of four photographers accredited to land in the first wave of American infantry. The film from Life Magazine’s other key photographer, Bob Landry, got lost, along with his shoes. It was left to Capa to capture the action, which he recounts in his novel-cum-memoir, Slightly Out of Focus. Steven Spielberg credits the work as source material for his movie, Saving Private Ryan, although it’s written in Biggles-type prose (“a German machine gun, spitting bullets around the barge, fully spoiled my return”).

Morris waited in London to process Capa’s film, an assignment he’d worked over in his head for eight months. His deadline was 9am Thursday. Timing would be everything. He worked out an alternate route to get his borrowed two-door Austin Sedan from the Ministry for Information’s censor office, which backed onto Bedford Square, across London, avoiding rush-hour traffic on Oxford Street, to Grosvenor Square, where a motorcycle courier would bring his cargo to an aerodrome near London. There, a twin-engine plane would fly it to Prestwick, Scotland to be transferred to a transatlantic plane. After fuel stops and a landing at Washington, DC, it would be couriered to New York.

That was the plan. But Tuesday passed. There was no word from Capa. The world waited for images of an invasion. Newspapers published pictures of military maps on their front pages. Wednesday ticked by. Still nothing. “It was really getting agonising,” says Morris. “Here was the greatest military operation in history and there were no pictures yet.”

Then at about 6.30pm that evening a call came in from a Channel port. A crackled voice had word of Capa’s film, and said Morris, who was waiting in his office with five staff, should have it in an hour or two. At 9pm, a messenger arrived with a packet of film. A scrawled note said: “John, all of the action is in the four rolls of 35-millimeter.”

Morris ordered his staff to get him contact prints as fast as possible. A young darkroom technician rushed into a separate room to dry the film. He hung it, as normal, in a wooden locker that doubled as a drying cabinet, which was heated by a coil on the floor. In his haste, he closed the doors to the room. Without ventilation, the emulsion on the film melted. He scampered upstairs to Morris, sobbing: “They’re ruined! Ruined! Capa’s films are all ruined!”

“I couldn’t believe it,” says Morris. “I ran back to the darkroom with him and I held up the rolls one at a time. The first three rolls, there was nothing. They were just pea soup. On the fourth roll, thank God, there were 11 frames which could be printed.”

They became known as “the magnificent 11”. After a torturous session at the censor’s office, Morris made it to the courier at 9am the following day, the last leg of which he ran, screaming “Hold it!”. Ten of the pictures captured by Capa as he waded through surf past anti-tank obstacles, men falling on his right and left, were published by Life Magazine.

Get the Picture? screens at 6.15pm, Sun, Feb 17, Lighthouse Cinema, Smithfield Square, Dublin 7. See www.jdiff.com.

Picture: Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer-prize winning photograph of a general executing a Vietcong prisoner on the streets of Saigon in February 1969, which John G Morris was responsible for putting on the front page of the New York Times

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