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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.

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Morris champions an earned intimacy – images shot over time. "At Life we recorded people's lives in humane ways. We certainly got the joy and tragedy. But we didn't invade people's privacy – I hate the paparazzi style."

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Great photographers blend three elements: "They have an eye, a heart, and a brain," he says. News photos should "combine aesthetics and history." But today's editors overplay aesthetics and often ignore "an awareness of a news narrative ... a good picture that has historical meaning."

This past June, the 65th anniversary of D-Day, Morris recalled handling the pool images of the US landings at Normandy. On June 6, 1944, the wait was unbearable: Nothing came back from Utah beach; the film fell into the English Channel. Finally, four rolls arrived from Capa at Omaha, the scene of some of the fiercest fighting. There were only minutes to get negatives to censors, who flew it to Washington. A staffer rushed Capa's film and dried it too quickly, melting the emulsion – a disaster. But on the last roll Morris found 11 faint images. They became the world's visual record of the Omaha landings.

A main Morris claim to fame is the 1955 "Family of Man" exhibit, chronicling the daily life of people worldwide. Curated by Edward Steichen of the Museum of Modern Art, New York, with text by Carl Sandburg, it honored the United Nations' human rights charter and an end to "the scourge of war." The exhibit toured 37 countries and was "most appreciated in Japan and Germany," Morris says.

The idea at least partly came from Morris's 1947 "People Are People" series in Ladies Home Journal that built on a feature titled "How America Lives." Subjects included Harlan County coal miners, Detroit auto workers, and postwar American suburbanites.

"Family of Man" values were embodied in the new Magnum agency Morris later headed. (As a business, Magnum was a form of "collective insecurity," he adds.)

"Our photographers took the common man seriously.... [I]t was the brotherhood of man filmed around the world; I'm happy to see [President] Obama talking about that concept again.

"We shot a typical farm family and ran 12 to 20 pictures.... How people cook, bathe, go to school, worship, travel. It showed that people confront the same problems everywhere.... [W]e had naked African children learning the alphabet next to well-clothed American children in school."

Morris worked with Mr. Steichen on the concept. Sixty of the 500 photos are from Magnum, ending with Mr. Smith's luminous "Walk to Paradise Garden."

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