Editor of iconic images was not a photographer

The Feb 2, 1968, issue of The New York Times, with Eddie Adams' photograph of the execution of a suspected Vietcong insurgent. As the paper's picture editor, Mr John Morris argued for printing the photo.
The Feb 2, 1968, issue of The New York Times, with Eddie Adams' photograph of the execution of a suspected Vietcong insurgent. As the paper's picture editor, Mr John Morris argued for printing the photo.PHOTO: NYTIMES
Mr John Morris.

John Morris' editorial judgment influenced the American public's understanding of seminal stories, including World War II and the Vietnam War

NEW YORK • Mr John Morris, a photography editor who shepherded Robert Capa's indelible images of the D-Day landing in 1944 into print at Life magazine, died last Friday at a Paris hospital. He was 100.

His death was confirmed by Mr Robert Pledge, president of Contact Press Images photo agency. The cause was not disclosed.

Mr Morris also selected two images from the Vietnam War for the front page of The New York Times, helping to turn public opinion against the involvement of the United States in the conflict.

Beginning at Life magazine in the 1930s and later as executive editor of the Magnum photo agency, he supervised such acclaimed photographers as Capa, Henri Cartier- Bresson and Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Mr Morris was not a photographer - except for a few weeks in France in 1944 - but his editorial vision was instrumental in defining the craft and aims of modern photojournalism. "A picture has to say something," he told photography magazine Black & White in 2014.

"It has to have passion, it has to have human feeling. It also should be well-composed because that's how the idea comes through.

"A photographer has to have a head, a heart and an eye."

One photojournalist who possessed all three qualities was the Hungary-born Capa, who gained renown during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and was working for Life during World War II.

On June 6, 1944, he was aboard a transport ship in the first wave of the Allied D-Day assault on Normandy's Omaha Beach. Wading chest-deep through water and holding his camera above his head as bullets struck all around him, Capa shot the first images of the initial phase of the invasion.

His film reached Life's London office on the night of June 7. Mr Morris had less than 12 hours to develop it and secure the approval of Allied censors. To meet Life's deadline, the photos had to be with a courier no later than 9am the next day.

In drying the film, his assistant closed the doors of a closet-like space in the darkroom, overheating the emulsion on the film.

"I held up the four rolls, one at a time," Mr Morris wrote in a 1998 memoir, Get The Picture. "Three were hopeless; nothing to see. But on the fourth roll, there were 11 frames with distinct images. Their grainy imperfection... contributed to making them among the most dramatic battlefield photos ever taken." Capa's pictures were published in the next issue of Life.

For 70 years, Mr Morris blamed himself for losing three rolls of Capa's images from Omaha Beach.

Only in the past two years, as photographers and historians examined development processes and the nature of the film used by Capa, did a new consensus emerge. Most experts now believe there were never any usable images beyond the original "magnificent 11".

Mr John Godfrey Morris, born on Dec 7, 1916, in New Jersey, grew up in Chicago. At the University of Chicago, he helped launch a student publication modelled on Life and was the picture editor.

After graduating in 1938, he worked in the mailroom of Time- Life publications before becoming Life's Hollywood correspondent and then London picture editor. He later worked for Ladies' Home Journal and as the top editor of Magnum, the agency started by Capa and other photographers.

In 1954, he sent Capa on an assignment to Vietnam, where he stepped on a land mine and was killed.

Mr Morris worked for The Washington Post in the 1960s and, from 1967 to 1973, was picture editor at the Times.

In 1968, he insisted that a photo by Eddie Adams of The Associated Press, showing a South Vietnamese police officer in the act of executing a Vietcong prisoner with a shot to the head, be run on the front page of the Times.

Four years later, he selected another photo, by Nick Ut, showing a naked, screaming Vietnamese girl fleeing a napalm attack. Both pictures won the Pulitzer Prize.

Mr Morris moved to Paris in 1983 and, for six years, was a correspondent and editor for National Geographic.

He often travelled to photography workshops. "I am not a photographer," he told the Times last year. "They did the great work; I just put it in the magazine or newspaper."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 01, 2017, with the headline 'Editor of iconic images was not a photographer'. Print Edition | Subscribe