Passings: John Morris, Legendary Photo Editor, Dies at 100

By David Schonauer   Sunday July 30, 2017

Legendary photo editor John G. Morris died on Friday at age 100.

Morris passed away at a hospital near near home in Paris; his friend and colleague Robert Pledge, a founder of the Contact Press Images agency, confirmed the death.

Morris, noted The New York Times, left an indelible stamp on photojournalism from World War II through the Vietnam War. He notably edited Robert Capa’s photos from the D-Day invasion of Europe for Life magazine, then got them printed and shipped to New York in time for the next week’s issue of Life magazine.

“Forceful and sometimes fractious, Mr. Morris had a peripatetic career that included stops at most of the major postwar centers of American photojournalism,” notes The Times in its obituary. In addition to Life magazine, he worked for The New York Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic and Magnum Photos.

Ironically, noted The Times, Morris was most closely associated with war photography, though he was a lifelong Quaker and pacifist. At Magnum he worked with war photographer and photo essayist W. Eugene Smith. He worked for The New York Times from 1967 to 1973, during the height of the Vietnam War. While at The Times, he successfully lobbied for a front-page display of Eddie Adams’s photograph of a Saigon police chief shooting a suspected Vietcong insurgent in the head --  an image, noted France 24, that became one of the most iconic images of the war.

Morris also argued for the newspaper to publish photographer Nick Ut’s image of a naked Vietnamese girl running from a napalm bombing raid. The photograph ran at the bottom of the front page despite a Times policy against nudity. Both that photograph and the Adams photograph won Pulitzer Prizes.

"John’s life was shaped by war. He was a child of the Great War and lived thorough WWII and Vietnam — and every other conflict until Iraq and Syria. He followed these conflicts as an observer and a humanist," Pledge told Time magazine. "When I look back at what he did with his career, war was his primary concern — it framed his understanding of humanity. Human enlightenment and understanding were always his goals."

The New York Times featured a video profile of Morris:

Morris’s work with Capa’s D-Day photographs led to one of the most memorable stories about his legendary career. PDN  notes that in his 1998 memoir, Get the Picture: a Personal History of Photojournalism, Morris explained that there was a mishap during the rush to process and dry the negatives. He was able to to ship 11 photos to the New York office.

Contrasto Books featured a video interview with Morris about Capa and D-Day:

Morris convinced W. Eugene Smith to join the Magnum cooperative, noted PDN: “The two worked together closely as Smith was working on his year-long project about Pittsburgh. In 1956, Smith insisted that Life publish the work as a 60-page essay, the editors refused; it was later published in Popular Photography‘s annual.”

In 1978, after Smith died, Morris and fellow editors Jim Hughes and Howard Chapnick created the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund, noted PDN. Each year, the Fund awards a grant to a photojournalist working in the humanistic tradition of Smith. Morris remained a member of the Smith Fund board until his death.

Though Morris made his mark on photography by not taking pictures, he was a first-person witness to history on June 5, 1968 when he saw Senator Robert F. Kennedy assassinated in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. His account  appeared on the front page of the next day’s Times, under his byline.

Beside his 1998 autobiography, Morris coauthored the 2004 book Robert Capa:D-Day; in 2014, he published a book of photos he took in Normandy in 1944, where he traveled after the invasion. France 24 featured a video of Morris recollecting of the liberation of Paris.

In 2016, Morris began fundraising to self-publish a second memoir titled My Century. While living in Paris in retirement, he remained politically active and was an anti-war activist, noted PDN. “Why is it that, after all these years of wars being photographed that we still have war?” he said in a 2016 interview  for Magnum Photos.

In the interview, Morris was asked how to approach editing a photographer’s work.

“A sense of empathy, as with any other profession and taking a sincere interest in the story, understanding the story and understanding the motivation of the various people involved,” he said.


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