Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism

By Morris, John G. | Nieman Reports, Summer 1998 | Go to article overview

Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism


Morris, John G., Nieman Reports


Graduating from the University of Chicago in 1937, John G. Morris began his illustrious career in photojournalism as an office boy in the mail room of Time-Life. Over the next half century he played a major role in the golden age of photojournalism, as a picture editor on Life, The Ladies' Home Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times, and as Executive Editor of Magnum, the photographer cooperative. He has worked closely with great photographers, including Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Norris recounts his experiences in his memoirs, "Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism." Here are edited excerpts from the book.

I am a journalist but not a reporter and not a photographer. I am a picture editor. I have worked with photographers, some of them famous, others unknown, for more than 50 years. I have sent them out on assignment, sometimes with a few casual suggestions, other times with detailed instructions, but always the challenge is the same: Get the picture. 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. I have accompanied unwed photographers to the marriage license bureau as their witness. Now I am married to one.

Photographers are the most adventurous of journalists. They have to be. Unlike a reporter, who can piece together a story from a certain distance, a photographer must get to the scene of the action, whatever danger or discomfort that implies. A long lens may bring his subject closer, but nothing must stand between him and reality. He must absolutely be in the right place at the right time. No rewrite desk will save him. He must show it as it is. His editor chooses among those pictures to tell it as it was--or was it? Right or wrong, the picture is the last word.

Thus the serious photojournalist becomes a professional voyeur. Often he hates himself for it. In 1936, Bob Capa made a picture of a Spanish Republican soldier, caught in the moment of death. It is one of the most controversial images of the 20th Century. Capa came to hate it .... Don McCullin, the great English photographer who has covered conflict on four continents, says simply, "I try to eradicate the past." He is speaking of how he must deal with what he has seen, because, in fact, he has done his best to preserve the past. And Eddie Adams, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning 1968 photograph of the execution of a Vietcong prisoner by Saigon's chief of police is a kind of ghastly updating of Capa's image, says only, in his trademark staccato, "I don't wanna talk about it."

The picture editor is the voyeurs' voyeur, the person who sees what the photographers themselves have seen but in the bloodless realm of contact sheets, proof prints, yellow boxes of slides, 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 the 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."

Life Magazine

Life's photographers had no desks, on the principle that they had no business sitting around the office, anyway. Instead, they had lockers in the Life lab on West 48th Street, a drab building that also housed a pharmacy. Only Margaret Bourke-White had an office there and a secretary. The Life lab had in fact begun as Bourke-White's personal one, specified in her Life contract. …

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