02 September 2014

Somewhere in France

The legendary picture editor, John G. Morris, was friends with some of the greatest photographers of the 20th century: Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, and, most notably, Robert Capa whom he worked with at Life Magazine and Magnum Photos. Today Morris, who is 97 and still going strong, resides in Paris where he has lived since 1983. 

Earlier this summer I had the pleasure of getting to meet Morris when he came to New York to give a talk at the International Center of Photography. Accompanied by Robert Pledge, the founder of Contact Press Images, Morris spoke for more than an hour to a packed room about his life, his friendship with Capa, and his new book Quelque Part en France: L’été 1944 de John G. Morris.

Born on December 7, 1916, Morris attended the University of Chicago where, inspired by Time Inc's publications, including their new Life Magazine, he founded the student magazine Pulse. After graduating in 1937 with a degree in political science, Morris was unable to get a job so he hung around the school, continuing to edit the magazine. He told the story of how one week Life photographer Bernie Hoffman came to campus to do a piece on the university, and Morris was hired to be his assistant for the princely sum of $25. The experience made a big impact on Morris and set him down the road of photojournalism. In 1938, he moved to New York to work in the mailroom at Life where he moved his way up to picture editor.  

During World War II Morris, now a picture editor, was assigned to Life’s London bureau where he edited Robert Capa’s iconic images of the D-Day invasion (more here). In the summer of 1944, Morris accompanied photographers George Rodger, Bob Landry, Ralph Morse, David E. Scherman, Frank Scherschel, and Capa to France as a photo coordinator to cover the Allied advance into Normandy and Brittany. He brought along a Rolleiflex and shot 14 rolls of 120mm film. A few of the images were published but the rest were put away and forgotten. A few years ago they were rediscovered by Robert Pledge who helped organized them into a new book, Quelque Part en France: L’été 1944 de John G. Morris.

"Near Dol-de-Bretagne, Ille-et-Vilaine, Brittany" John G. Morris (August 7, 1944)

The photos in the book show bombed out towns and empty train stations, civilians and refugees, and soldiers and prisoners of war. One chapter documents the liberation of the town of Rennes in Normandy, which contained a German POW camp.There are even a few “selfies.” Written in French, the book includes reproductions of the letters Morris wrote home to his wife, Dele, as well as a letter to Elizabeth "Crocky" Reeve, a staff member in the London office, in which he admits that "I fully satisfied my appetite for the front line by getting shot at individually, which is old stuff to guys like Capa but something new to me, even though I did grow up in Chicago."

In many instances, the photos are intimate portraits of war. There’s the image of a German soldier who could pass for a school child surrendering; a woman, suspected of collaborating with the Germans, being shouted at as she's taken away; a dead American soldier laying by the side of a road. They serve as a reminder of the real cost of war. Yet some of the images are also lighthearted like the MP kissing a girl in a field or the rail sign that reads "U.S. Army Special to Berlin On Time—As Usual." Then there is the shot of the three boys who grace the cover of the book who we learned all survived the war and lived to be old men. 

Pledge explained at the talk that when the project was first started, many of the images were unidentified. Through research and with the help of others, the pieces of the puzzle were put together. In some instances photos taken prior to the war of the towns that Morris had visited were used as comparisons; in other cases initials on the side of the frames helped Morris to recall where he had been.


That summer in France, Morris picked up a camera because he felt he needed the experience, to see what war was all about. When asked why he didn’t photograph more often he said, when you go around with greats like Capa, you don’t take pictures behind their backs (ironically there is an image in the book taken of Capa’s back as he’s taking a photo).

Throughout his talk, Morris always returned to Capa whom he first met in New York in 1939. Morris’ life seems to have always been connected to the dashing war photographer from his student days when he reprinted a Capa photo in Pulse to their working together at Life and Magnum; even Morris’ decision to live in Paris was influenced by Capa. As he put it, “Capa was my Hungarian brother.”

Morris remains interested in world affairs, particularly in US politics (he is a lifelong Democrat) and says he is still hopeful for the future. While he praised the work of some publications like National Geographic, he said that the press doesn’t always do a good job and needs to tell the truth more. He also stressed the importance of the role of the picture editor. With more publications reducing their photo staffs there is a need now more than ever, he said, for good picture editors. The ease at which people can take photos means that publications are swamped with loads of images and need trained picture editors who can sort through them and separate out the junk.

"Transport of German prisoners by American soldiers near Saint-Lo, Normandie" John G. Morris (July 27, 1944)

Finally, at the end of the talk, an audience member asked, “who is the most talented photographer you’ve worked with?” to which Morris replied, “Don’t ask me such a ridiculous question.”

An exhibit of Morris’ work is at the ICP through September 7, 2014 (more here). A copy of Quelque Part en France can be purchased here.

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