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Photo Editor John G. Morris Is Dead At 100 Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

29 July 2017

John Godfrey Morris, the legendary photo editor for Life, Ladies' Home Journal, Magnum, The New York Times, The Washington Post and National Geographic died yesterday at the age of 100 in Paris.

He edited Robert Capa's images of the D-Day invasion of Normandy in 1944, getting the prints to New York in time for the next issue of Life magazine. He recently came to believe the 11 images that survived from four rolls of film Capa sent were all the photographer managed to take and not the only shots that survived a film processing snafu.

At Magnum he sent W. Eugene Smith on assignment to Pittsburgh, which Smith turned into an 11,000 image shoot requiring, ultimately, a 38-page layout in Photography Annual when Life refused to publish it in the 60-page spread that Smith demanded.

During the Vietnam War he was responsible for the front-page display of Eddie Adams's image of a Saigon police chief shooting a suspected Vietcong in the head. He also placed Nick Ut's image of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm bombing raid on the Times front page despite a policy against nudity.

Both those images won Pulitzer Prizes.

Morris was born in Maple Shade, N.J., on Dec. 7, 1916. He was raised in Chicago and studied journalism at the University of Chicago where he worked for the campus newspaper and founded a student magazine called Pulse.

I take some comfort that nothing can now happen anywhere in the world that doesn't come to the attention of the rest of the world.

In 1938 he arrived in New York and found a job at Life as a clerk. He was promoted to Hollywood correspondent and when World War II broke out, he was sent to London as Life's picture editor to follow the war in Europe.

After the war, he briefly worked for Life's Paris bureau before returning to New York to become the picture editor of Ladies' Home Journal. In 1948, he convinced the editors to print Capa's photos of Russia.

He also launched a photo series called "People Are People the World Over" at the Journal, which he claimed inspired Edward Steichen's "The Family of Man" show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1955.

In 1953, Capa persuaded him to become Magnum's fist executive editor.

He moved to the Washington Post in 1964 as assistant managing editor where he was able to choose photos for the front page. Those photos were among the first to be printed in color by a major newspaper.

He returned to the New York Times after less than a year at the Washington Post, serving as picture editor from 1967 to 1973. For a couple of years he headed the Times' syndication service before returning to Paris in 1983 where he spent six years at the Paris editor for National Geographic.

In 1998 he published his autobiography, Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism

He was awarded the Lègion d'Honneur in 2009 and an Infinity Award for lifetime achievement given by the International Center of Photography in New York in 2010.

He gave this advice to today's practitioners of the art:

In journalism, one first looks for the meaning, the truth that's involved in the image -- does this image show something important? Is it true or false? The composition, the form, which is more of an aesthetic question, comes second. The ideal picture for a story first has to have meaning and secondly, hopefully, to have form -- good composition. Good composition takes the eye to the focal point.

A Quaker and lifelong pacifist (who made an exception for World War II)), Morris lamented the failure of war photography to reduce the world's conflicts. Still, in a 2007 interview he held out hope:

I'd like to think that photography has made a difference. With communication as it now is and the Internet, I take some comfort that nothing can now happen anywhere in the world that doesn't come to the attention of the rest of the world. And maybe if the rest of the world only learns what to do about it, that would be great. But it's a very slow and painful learning process.

As a photo editor, Morris devoted his life to that process. If it is the photographer's job to capture the truth, it is the photo editor's to compose it artfully later. And to make sure that truth sees the light of day.

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