A Personal History of Photojournalism
by John G. Morris

Book review by Marianne Fulton

Portrait of John G. Morris        In his recent book, GET THE PICTURE (Random House, 1998), John Morris does us a great favor--he remembers.  Photojournalism, unlike many forms of photography, is of the present and its history is lodged in an oral tradition which includes tall tales, of course.  If you want to know how a picture or photo story came into existence, generally you go through hundreds of magazines hoping somebody wrote down what they heard (i.e. if  photojournalists’ strength was telling stories by writing, they wouldn't be taking photographs, etc.) If the search in print is unsuccessful, the photographer, if alive and willing to relive a certain moment can be helpful.
         Morris is right in saying that he is a journalist although he neither reports in words nor takes photographs--he is a picture editor.

"I have worked with photographers, some of them famous, others unknown, for more than fifty years....I’ve accompanied photographers on countless stories; I've carried their equipment and held their lights, pointed them in the right direction if they needed pointing.  I've seconded their alibis when things went badly and celebrated with them when things went well. I have bought and sold their pictures for what must total millions of dollars. I have hired scores of photographers, and, sadly, I've had to fire a few.  I've testified for them in court, nursed them through injury and illness, saved them from eviction, fed them, buried them...."

John G. Morris and David Chim Seymour
John G. Morris (left) talks with David "Chim" Seymour, ca. 1954.

         Picture editors are revered (generally later), feared, and made to be the scapegoat for anything that goes wrong. They stand between the photographer and, these days, the business office. They often side with the picture or story in dispute but most often money wins out. Celebrities sell more magazines than insight into the horrors and international implications of Bosnia, for example.
        In the paragraph quoted we see the unglamorous reality of life on the road during conflicts or natural disasters, but Morris is a good-natured man.  He does not beg our sympathy because he has had to make miserable choices: he and the news organization need THE picture or story that will alert the public to the state of the world; on the other hand, he has buried his share of close friends.  I suspect he's no different than other editors who agonize about when to pull out their photographers and then carry the memory of those who were lost forever.
        In a succinct early paragraph he describes the terrain:

"The picture editor is the voyeurs’ voyeur, the person who sees what the photographers themselves have seen but in the bloodless realm of contact sheet...and now pixels on the screen.  Picture editors find the representative picture, the image, that will be seen by others perhaps around the world. They are unwitting (or witting, as the case may be) tastemakers, the unappointed guardians of morality, the talent brokers, the accomplices to celebrity.  Most important--or disturbing--they are the fixers of ‘reality’ and of ‘history.’"

         Picture editors also have a little time to look for what the photographer in a dangerous or rushed situation may not have seen. Who else is in the photo? How does the composition of one image enhance its impact over another taken of the same scene a second earlier?  Also, while the picture editor is invested in finding the perfect picture of a significant story, the editor's distance allows her/him to stand back and consider. For the editor, no one in the image fixed a flat tire on the company car or offered a much welcomed glass of wine: the picture's content is paramount.
         Besides writing of his great friends, including the Capa family, he also talks about training young photographers at the Missouri Workshop, and most importantly he walks the readers through the  business of news--and it is, of course, a very big business. He deals with censorship, timetables, publishing parameters, and the heart-pounding hours before a story falls into place. He outlines the sequence of new photo agencies and how they moved into a vacuum and changed all outlets of photojournalism.
Robert Capa's Coffin - Photo by Dirck Halstead

Robert Capa's Funeral - Photo by Dirck Halstead

Of  Robert Capa’s death in 1954, we are familiar with the last pictures, the dying and the Quaker service, we may feel the terrible loss but this section of the book is a stunner. First, on facing pages is the picture of Capa’s coffin, in the grave.  It looks like a large wooden ammo box or supply container.  But it’s not. His name and occupation are stenciled on the top in French (it’s from French Indochina): Restes Mortels, Capa Robert, Reporter Photographie....
        Opposite a photograph shows a young Cornell Capa gripping the sides of his mother as she leans out over the casket as if to embrace her son one more time (pp. 160-161).
         Morris describes his last phone call to Robert Capa.  Morris called Tokyo to talk him out of taking the assignment. Morris yelled over the noise of a poor phone connection, "You don’t have to go!" Words that stayed with the editor.
         He wrote about Capa later, taking on some of the jauntiness of Capa’s own style.  In part Morris said, "He died with a camera in his left hand, his story unexpectedly finished.  He left behind a thermos of cognac, a few good suits, a bereaved world, and his pictures, among them some of the greatest recorded moments of modern history. He also leaves a legend, for which there is no other description than--Capa."
         There was talk at the grave site about letting an unknown, obviously young photographer from the local paper take such intimate photographs.  When asked, Morris said, "After all, whom are we burying?" The photographer was Dirck Halstead.

About GET THE PICTURE I can only add GET THE BOOK.

Marianne Fulton
Contributing Editor

Chief Curator, George Eastman House, Rochester, NY

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