Kavitha Rao

Freelance journalist, author & trainer

Kodak Moments
The Daily Yomiuri, Oct 2003

In 1938, Life magazine published a photo-essay on the Spanish civil war by the famed war photographer Robert Capa with the justification, “Dead men have indeed died in vain if live men refuse to look at them.” Life is of course, long gone, and with it, most of the photojournals. What passes for photojournalism these days are paparazzi shots of the royals, Britney Spears and Anna Kournikova.

This is why “Get the Picture”, John Morris’s personal history of fifty years of photojournalism is such a fascinating read. This is an updated version of a book—with a new foreword and afterword added— that will appeal not merely to photographers, but to anyone who has ever appreciated a good photo and wondered about the story behind it. Morris was the photo editor for Life during the Second World War, picture editor for both The Washington Post and the New York Times during the sixties and executive editor of the Magnum photo agency, among other positions. He was responsible for getting into print some of the most haunting images of the century: Capa’s grainy images of the D-day landing on Omaha beach, Eddie Adams’ Pulitzer prize winning photograph of the execution of a Vietcong prisoner, and the first images of man landing on the moon. Along the way, he met and mingled with celebrities ranging from Ernest Hemingway and Marlene Dietrich to John Steinbeck and Henry Luce.

Photography was a dangerous trade in those days. Many photographers died violent deaths on the battlefront and in the field, including Capa, Werner Bischoff, and David ‘Chim” Seymour. Still, getting the photos taken was only the beginning. Morris then had to sneak them past newspaper editors, censors and sometimes a disapproving public. Morris writes thrillingly of the difficulties of being a “voyeurs voyeur”. “Picture editors,” he says, “ find the representative picture, the image that will be seen by others round the world. They are the tastemakers, the unaccompanied guardians of morality, the talent brokers, the accomplices to celebrity.”

In the daily battle between the “word men and the picture men”, it was often the pictures which fell by the wayside, sometimes because they revealed unpalatable truths. Morris illustrates this with a poignant photo of an injured mother and child in Nagasaki, taken twenty-seven hours after the bomb was dropped. Such pictures were not published anywhere at the time, he points out, leaving the American public totally in the dark about the effects of the bomb. Later Morris again tried unsuccessfully to distribute pictures of American casualties in Vietnam and the activities of anti-Castro groups in Cuba. In both cases newspapers refused to publish them and the stories were buried.

Setting up the Magnum picture agency, which still survives today, was one of Morris’s most visionary achievements. Magnum was the first agency owned entirely by photographers, including Capa, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Seymour and George Rodger. As executive editor, Morris’s difficult task was to find buyers for the photos and make profits, while protecting the photographers’ rights. Magnum paved the way for other photoagencies that safeguarded photographers’ rights, including Gamma, Sygma and Sipa.

If this book has a defect, it is that there are too few photographs. Several photos are alluded to but not printed, perhaps due to copyright or cost constraints. These include such images as Huynh Cong Ut’s unforgettable photo of a little Vietnamese girl running naked from a napalm bombing, Frank Fournier’s picture of a young girl being submerged by volcanic mud in Colombia, and images from the Tianenmen square massacre. Morris also refrains from addressing the moral issues raised by the death of Princess Diana in any great detail, though he does point out that, “Had photographers not so covered her, people throughout the world would never have come to know, love and ultimately mourn their princess.”

Where is photojournalism headed? In the afterword, added after the attacks on the World Trade Center, Morris thinks that the events of September 11 will lead to “photojournalism being reborn in challenging new forms around the world. The terrorist attack on the World Trade Center brought out a lot of the best and the worst in journalism,” he says, pointing out that newspapers throughout the world “used pictures more forcefully than ever to describe the indescribable.” Still, he says, “It is no secret that coverage of world affairs has been cut drastically in recent years. Space goes to subjects that build mass audiences—celebrities, sports, health and hygiene, rock music, soap operas, animated discussions of trivia. Journalism has become intertwined with entertainment for the sake of profitability.” Morris refuses to blame television for the problems of print journalism though, arguing that they should complement each other.

Perhaps Morris’s most telling illustration of the power of an image is David Turnley’s Gulf War picture. It shows an American soldier in tears over a body bag containing the remains of his best friend, and as Morris points out, “makes hollow that great sanitized victory.” The picture was very nearly censored, but when rescued was chosen as the World Press Photo of the year, becoming one of the most memorable images of the Gulf War. It is these “unmentionable words and pictures, working together, that can reestablish truth in our time,” hopes Morris. An encouraging thought, if only Jennifer Lopez wasn’t hogging all those column inches.