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.

Robert Marquand
John Morris stands outside his Paris home.
Courtesy of John Morris/Magnum Photo Agency
Robert Capa, who took iconic photos of the D-Day invasion, was photographed by Magnum photo editor John Morris in World War II Paris. The orange marks were made with a wax crayon used to crop photos.
Courtesy of Magnum Collection/Magnum Photos
A portrait of a Magnum meeting in Paris in 1957 includes Morris (2nd from l., front), Henri Cartier-Bresson (2nd from l., standing), Cornell Capa (Robert’s brother, 4th from l., front), Inge Morath (fifth from l., standing), and Ernst Haas (2nd from r., standing).

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.

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.

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."

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."

Morris still feels strongly about the "Family" concept ("artistically, people loved it or hated it," he says), but "I may have been naive and overidealistic to think the peoples of the world would come together in harmony." He sent Magnum's George Rogers to South Asia during the partition of India in 1947. "Rogers couldn't get to India because of the slaughter of hundreds of thousands ... so we settled for a family in Pakistan."

Morris is "a man of six cities" – New York, London, Washington, Chicago, Paris, and Los Angeles. (He worked in the latter as Hollywood correspondent for Life.)

But Paris comes first. Morris isn't a disillusioned expat, though he did lead a march of "Americans for Peace" during the first Iraq war. ("If I had come to Paris in protest it would have been over Vietnam.... I've never apologized for being a liberal ... I've not supported any US war since World War II," where he participated under conscientious-objector status.)

Rather, "I still think Paris is the most beautiful city in the world." In 1944, during its liberation, he wrote a love letter to his wife, and to Paris. But he didn't move there until 1983, for National Geographic. Morris agrees with expat Irwin Shaw, who said, "I was never a Parisian. I was always an American, on an extended visit...."

He's now defending the legacy of Capa, whom he calls an adopted brother. A recent New York Times story suggests Capa's soldier did not fall in the place described, based on landscape analysis. The famed image has long been accused of being staged.

"It's very painful for me," Morris says. Capa, he argues, sent rolls to Paris from Spain and didn't control selection from among hundreds of images. "It's hard to evaluate your friends. I excuse Capa for things I would condemn others for, I so admired his spirit.

"Capa was a liar and a rogue, but not on important things. He made 11 trips to Spain; worked in China; took risks in Africa, in Sicily, in Italy. He parachuted across the Rhine, and died on patrol in Indochina. What I believe in about Bob are shared ideals. I chose him for the first shoot of 'People Are People' – a farm family in Iowa. He had a gift for meeting people, for connecting with others."

Morris was raised in Chicago (in a Christian Science family; he later became a Quaker) and worked on the University of Chicago paper. On a ship back from Europe in 1935 he nearly got talked out of journalism by a friend of FDR's. "He was wearing a tuxedo, I was in knickers. He advised I get a public-policy degree." But Morris had an epiphany his first day back at the school paper: "I sat down at a typewriter, and just knew, 'This is it. This is my career.' "

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