John G. Morris, Renowned Editor in the Thick of History, Dies at 100

John G. Morris, Renowned Editor in the Thick of History, Dies at 100

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At Magnum he offered assignments to the great war photographer and photo essayist W. Eugene Smith after Mr. Smith had had a falling-out with Life.

While working for The Times during the Vietnam War, he successfully argued for front-page display of Eddie Adams’s photograph of a Saigon police chief shooting a suspected Vietcong insurgent in the head. It appeared as the lead picture on Feb. 2, 1968, and became one of the most indelible images to emerge from the war.

So did a photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm bombing raid. (The photograph was credited to Nick Ut, whose given name was later revealed to be Huynh Cong Ut.) Mr. Morris persuaded editors to run that photo at the bottom of the front page despite a Times policy against nudity. Both that photograph and the one by Mr. Adams won Pulitzer Prizes.

Mr. Morris was himself an eyewitness to history: In the early morning of June 5, 1968, he witnessed the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. “The most terrible event I think I ever witnessed up close,’’ he said in an interview.

It turned him — for a day, at least — into a reporter (he seldom carried a camera himself): His eyewitness account appeared on the front page of the next day’s Times, under his byline.

“For five minutes, the throng in the Embassy Room was thrown into a state of panic,” Mr. Morris reported. “The cries of admiration changed to hysterical screams as the shots — muffled by the crowd noise — penetrated the consciousness of the bystanders.”


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John G. Morris

CreditLibrado Romero


John Godfrey Morris was born in Maple Shade, N.J., on Dec. 7, 1916, and grew up in Chicago. He became passionate about journalism as a student at the University of Chicago in the 1930s, going to work for the campus newspaper and founding a student magazine called Pulse, loosely modeled on Life.

After graduation he came to New York and, in 1938, found a job at Life as a clerk. He worked his way up to Hollywood correspondent and, with the outbreak of World War II, London picture editor, in charge of Life’s photographic coverage of the war in Europe.

His editing of Mr. Capa’s photos of D-Day produced one of the more enduring bits of lore in photojournalism history. As the story went, Mr. Capa sent the London office four rolls of film from Normandy, but in the rush to process them, a darkroom technician overheated them during drying, ruining all but 11 frames.

Or so the technician had told him, Mr. Morris said, and he related that account for 70 years or so.

Recalling the episode, he told NPR in 2002: “I said, ‘I can’t believe it.’ So I ran to look at them with him, and I held up the rolls one at a time. And the first three were just soup. You couldn’t see anything. But on the fourth roll of film, the last one, there were 11 images that were discernible. And those pictures saved us, and those were the pictures that have come to symbolize D-Day ever since.”

But recently, persuaded by newer theories that have since emerged, he came to believe that a darkroom error was not the reason there were so few Capa frames. He told Jim Estrin of The Times last December that he believed that Mr. Capa had been so rattled during the withering fire at Omaha Beach that he exposed only 11.

Mr. Morris went to Normandy himself within weeks of the invasion to see the Western Front for himself and better understand the photos he had been editing in London. Allowed to walk ashore at Normandy in July 1944, he spent a month in the combat zone accompanying photographers, including Mr. Capa, for Life and The Associated Press. In Normandy, he and Mr. Capa narrowly avoided being wounded when they came under fire from a German platoon.

Mr. Morris left Life’s London bureau at the end of the war and, after a brief stint heading the magazine’s Paris bureau, returned to New York and became the picture editor of Ladies’ Home Journal.

It was an unlikely home for the kind of photojournalism he had championed, but in 1948 he persuaded the magazine’s editors to print photographs of Russia that Mr. Capa had taken on a trip with John Steinbeck, and he later introduced a series of picture essays called “People Are People the World Over.”

By Mr. Morris’s account, the series partly inspired Edward Steichen to curate “The Family of Man,” an exhibition of more than 500 pictures by more than 270 photographers that opened at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.

His association with Mr. Capa led Mr. Morris to leave Ladies’ Home Journal to become the first executive editor of Magnum, which had been founded by Mr. Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, David Seymour and George Rodger in 1947.

Hired in 1953, Mr. Morris was put in charge of selling Magnum’s pictures to magazines, running its offices in New York and Paris, and managing its mercurial and far-flung photographers. By the end of his first year, he was already arguing with Mr. Capa about the agency’s future size and direction, but he remained Magnum’s main manager and salesman for nine years.

He joined The Washington Post in 1964 with the title of assistant managing editor, responsible for, among other things, choosing color photographs for the front page. The Post was one of the first large newspapers to run color photos.

But he was fired after less than a year, having run afoul of a deputy managing editor, and returned to New York, where he joined The Times. He was picture editor there from 1967 to 1973, during the height of the Vietnam War.

“Annotated Rennes Contact Sheet,” 1944.

Mr. Morris described this contact sheet as follows: “A contact sheet, made in London, from the Rolleiflex I used in Normandy. Most of these frames were taken the morning of the liberation of Rennes, but Capa borrowed the camera for a few minutes to make the photo of me at Mont Saint Michel.”



Credit
John G. Morris

After stepping down as picture editor, he was named head of NYT Pictures, a syndication service started by The Times primarily to market the work of its staff photographers. He left that job in 1975.

Mr. Morris returned to Paris in 1983, soon after marrying Tana Hoban, a photographer who specialized in children’s books, and spent the next six years as Paris editor of National Geographic. He was a frequent visitor to the United States to judge photojournalism competitions and to lecture at journalism schools.

Mr. Morris had been widowed twice when he married Ms. Hoban, and she, too, died before him, in 2006. His first wife, the former Mary Adele Crosby, with whom he had four children, died in 1964. His second wife, the former Marjorie Smith, a school headmistress and single mother of two sons, died in 1981.

Among his honors was the Légion d’Honneur, presented in 2009, and an Infinity Award for lifetime achievement given by the International Center of graphy in New York in 2010.

He is survived by his partner, Patricia Trocmé; four sons from two marriages, John II, Chris, Kirk and Oliver; and four grandchildren. He and Ms. Smith also had two daughters, Heather, who died in infancy, and Holly, who died in recent years.

Perhaps the most star-crossed move of Mr. Morris’s long career was to invite Mr. Smith to join Magnum, an affiliation that lasted three and a half years. Mr. Smith had quit Life in a dispute with its editors.

Mr. Morris arranged for Mr. Smith to take a brief assignment in Pittsburgh for a book on the city planned by Stefan Lorant, another renowned picture editor. Mr. Smith, however, moved to Pittsburgh for an entire year and took more than 11,000 pictures. Life was interested in publishing a selection of them, but Mr. Smith insisted that the best be published in Life as a 60-page essay. Life refused, though the photos eventually appeared in a 38-page layout in graphy Annual, a yearly photography publication.

Mr. Smith subsequently resigned from Magnum, primarily because he had failed to contribute to its finances while obsessed with the Pittsburgh project and owed the agency a $7,000 advance. Mr. Morris nonetheless remained a close friend. When Mr. Smith died in 1978, Mr. Morris became executor of his estate.

Mr. Morris published his autobiography, “Get the Picture: A Personal History of journalism,” in 1998.

Mr. Morris in the early 1960s. Picture editing is generally regarded as an uneventful occupation, but Mr. Morris’s career argued otherwise.

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John G. Morris collection

For all his passionate interest in photojournalism, Mr. Morris had little interest in being a photographer himself. In an interview for this obituary in 2006, he said, “I don’t take pictures unless the photographer doesn’t show up.”

But when he did take pictures, they could be memorable. After arriving in France after the Normandy invasion, he used a Rolleiflex to make photos near the front. They were published for the first time in 2014, in France, in a book titled “Somewhere in France” and shown at the International Center of graphy.

In the same 2006 interview, he spoke to what he viewed as a photojournalist’s essential qualities.

“Timing is all important in photography,” he said. “Not just the timing of the shutter itself, but knowing when to work and when not to work. When to photograph and when not to photograph.

“Great photographers have to have three things,” he continued. “They have to have heart if they’re going to photograph people. They have to have an eye, obviously, to be able to compose. And they have to have a brain to think about what they’re shooting. Too many photographers have two of the three attributes, but not the third.”

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