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John Morris: An eye-witness to the rise of photojournalism

As a life-long photo editor, John Morris shepherded some of the 20th century's most iconic images and most well-regarded photographers.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 5, 2009

John Morris stands outside his Paris home.

Robert Marquand

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When John Morris presented his press card for a Sarkozy-Obama event at the Élysée Palace, French officials were stunned. The card for "Correspondent 114" was not only dated 1944 (Mr. Morris used it after D-Day), but it was issued in London from the office of Charles de Gaulle, father of modern France, leader of the Resistance.

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Morris got into the press conference.

He is a man who's kept a warm seat on history's front row. As a lifelong photo editor, Morris shepherded some of the 20th century's most iconic images and most well-regarded photographers: Robert Capa was a close friend. So was W. Eugene Smith and Henri Cartier-Bresson. For Morris they weren't ­"famous," but colleagues, often quite fallible – as Morris admits amid new doubts about the authenticity of "Fallen Soldier," one of Mr. Capa's most famous images from the Spanish Civil War. (The photo purports to show the instant of a militiaman's death.)

"I don't know about that shot," Morris says. "What I believe in is the overall veracity of Robert Capa, even though he could be a rogue."

Morris was London photo editor for Life magazine in 1943, was present at the creation of the upstart photography agency Magnum, and helped conceive the "Family of Man" exhibit in 1954. He's spent a life pioneering high quality images in a news medium that, when he started, treated photos as filler.

Now 93, Morris has scarcely slowed down. A Paris expat, he gives talks on "my 17 presidents" from his Bastille apartment; was recently awarded France's Légion d'honneur; writes on peace and disarmament based on his Quaker faith; and is working on a new book, "A Love Letter to My Three Wives."

"He's 93 – going on 45," says Charles Rivkin, the US ambassador to France.

Morris remembers in detail an endless parade of figures: from Marlene Dietrich, to George Patton, to Ernest Hemingway, Andrei Sakharov, and Walter Cronkite. He was photo editor at The Washington Post and The New York Times.

The rise of the image in global culture is "a blessing and a curse ... but history needs it," Morris says. Life magazine was revolutionary in its use of photos that drove stories. But the concept started with European magazines busting the mold of pure print, he says – first in Berlin, then London, and then in the United States – by Hungarian and German refugees working for agencies like Pix and Black Star. They used small cameras that shot frames quickly. It was the start of photo-journalism.