The two most unforgettable images from Vietnam are Ernie Adams’s startling moment-of-execution in a Saigon street, and Huynh Cong Ut’s shocking photo of a naked Vietnamese girl running down a track, in agony after a napalm attack. Morris was the New York Times photo editor that convinced the paper to run the pictures on its front page. He modestly says the question with Adams’s execution image was not Should we run it? It was How big? And he recalls the editors’ relief that the naked girl in the napalm picture was so young, otherwise the photo would never have been published. Both images won the Pulitzer Prize; more importantly, they helped turn public opinion against the Vietnam war.
Morris is keenly aware of the impact photo-journalism can have. He managed the legendary photo-agency Magnum in its early years, and was photo-editor at the New York Times and Washington Post during the tumultuous 1960s, when image after image entered the history books long after the newspapers lined bird cages. The 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King was followed only weeks later by that of Robert F Kennedy; the latter event gave Morris his only front-page byline of the New York Times. He happened to be in the Los Angeles hotel when Kennedy was shot, and filed his report. In the next two years, pictures would arrive of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, of Teddy Kennedy’s car submerged at Chappaquiddick, and of the student killings at Kent State. Morris oversaw the images that were to go with the Times’ “Pentagon Papers” scoop, only to see the lengthy text run without illustration, and probably to lesser effect.
Now 90 and a retired American in Paris – a city which can still be regarded as the home base of photo-journalism – Morris pinpoints the difference between photographers in World War Two and the current conflict in Iraq. “Let’s face it, [in the Second World War] we were propagandists. The American and Allied press was not neutral, we were fighting the war and we were an instrument of propaganda.” Hence the job involved self-censorship, even before news copy and photos went through official channels for approval: injured or dead Allied combatants were rarely photographed, and neither were images that may contain useful information (unit badges on uniforms, technical equipment, weaponry). Even photographers such as Capa avoided taking these pictures because they knew they would not be published.
In Iraq, there is also an agenda taking place, says Morris: “There are so many on our side who believe the war in Iraq was unjustified that a lot of people are happy to see it photographed in all its horror.” He compares the lack of images of casualties in Iraq – of either side, but especially American soldiers – with the experience of Life’s Ralph Morse, who photographed a cover story of an injured soldier, following from his wounding in the battlefield, through treatment in field hospitals to his arrival back home.
“Photographers refrained from photographing the most gruesome aspects of war, and perhaps avoided that too much. In recent wars, photo coverage has become more realistic. David Duncan’s pictures of the Korean War showed American forces in retreat: his photos were very realistic and very tragic, too. In the Vietnam War the photos were even more realistic, from people like Larry Burrows but many others as well. The standards of what gets published have loosened up as wars have gone on.”
We met in 2005 at the Frontline Club in Paddington, a London retreat for war correspondents, photographers and film crew. The glass cases showing bloodied maps, destroyed flak jackets and cameras that weren’t bullet proof testify to the dangers endured by the club members and their need to mingle when not in the field. In a black cab ride across London to the Institute of Contemporary Arts for a seminar on war photography, Morris’s anecdotes continued. The ICA was founded by Roland Penrose, husband of Lee Miller – Man Ray’s muse and a war photographer herself, known for her early shots of the liberated concentration camps. Arriving at the ICA, we were greeted by another legendary photo-journalist, Philip Jones Griffiths, whose 1971 book Vietnam Inc. would be the most famous collection from that war.
In London during the Second World War, Morris befriended George Silk, New Zealand’s most celebrated war photographer. Silk was offered a job on Life for one image, in which a Papua New Guinean leads a blind Australian soldier to safety, and later concentrated on sports and stop-motion photography. (Morris was also on the interview panel when New Zealander Brian Brake applied for membership at Magnum.)We began by talking about George Silk. They first met during the war when Silk was hired by Life magazine, where Morris was assistant editor to the picture editor, in New York. “George was hired on the basis of one remarkable photo he’d taken of a Papuan native walking with a blinded soldier across the mountains of New Guinea. It was a powerful picture and I think Life used it as the picture of the week.
“Then I got to know him better when he came to London several months after D-Day. He’d been in the Italian theatre after covering the action in North Africa. He photographed the Italian front in colour, which was very seldom used at Life, because at Life it took six weeks to close a colour page so we didn’t do it often.
“George more or less experimented with colour in battle in Italy. That was one of very few colour reportages that Life ever published during the war. Then he came to London I guess about October 1944, after the liberation of Paris. “After the war he became a specialist in sports photography and developed techniques which were really quite special. He opened the camera and got sense of motion, and also did multiple exposures.”
It is easy to forget now the impact that the weekly Life magazine had around the world. (Life magazine cover, from 12 June 1964, by Larry Burrows.)
“In the days before television Life magazine was the evidence that America existed, and it was the most prestigious place for a photographer to appear, any photo-journalist. We really had no competition among the magazines: Look was a picture magazine but it closed two or three weeks in advance, whereas we closed on a Saturday night and the magazine appeared the following week. Look would appear two or three weeks later, or normally six weeks. So when Pearl Harbour happened, which was on a Sunday, Look came out for at least one more issue without any reference to the war whatever.”
During wartime, photo editors must balance questions of news values, security and taste. But their role changed between the Second World War and Vietnam.
“The most serious questions of taste are those that arise over the coverage of war, because life and death is so serious. We had to submit everything to censors in the Second World War if it was taken in combat areas. There was no censorship domestically of the magazine. But anything taken in a war theatre had to be censored. Here the censorship was done at the Ministry of Information, mostly English and Canadian censors at work. Every photograph I wanted to send back to the states, every negative, had to be printed four times proof -print size, 5x7: one print for us, one for London censors, one for Washington censors and one print for Life and they would get the negative itself.
“The photographers normally avoided shooting pictures that they knew would be censored. For example the faces of the American dead would have been censored. The shoulder patches that designated military units were censored. Secret weapons were censored: there were fewer and fewer secret weapons as the war went on, but the Norden bombsight for example was something one could not photograph. It was used for precision bombing, a sensor placed in the nose of an aircraft. Norden was the trade name of the manufacturer. Once a picture of the Norden bombsight got through the censors somehow and caused some problems: that’s the kind of thing.
“Photographers also refrained from photographing the most gruesome aspects of war and perhaps avoided that too much. In recent wars, as war has gone on – I was going to say progressed, but I don’t regard it as progression – photo coverage became more realistic with the Korean pictures. David Duncan’s pictures of Korean War that really showed American forces in retreat. His photos of the marines in the Korean War were very realistic indeed, very tragic too. And then in the Vietnam War the photo coverage was very realistic also. Larry Burrows did great work but many others did great reporting in the Vietnam War – some of that got published.
“The standards of what gets published have loosened up as wars have gone on. And I have a slide for example, of the front of the Guardian that shows a photo taken by Jerome Delay of AP in Baghdad the day of the shelling of the Palestine Hotel in Baghdad when two journalists were killed. An event that is taken very seriously by the journalistic community. Jerome Delay is a French photographer, he was there and was one of those who carried the wounded – he carried the Reuters cameraman out of the hotel to the hospital. He was so upset by this he continued photographing in the hospital, and his colour photo of body parts, of Allied action – when I say Allied action, it’s really American action – appeared on the front of the Guardian. But that’s not very likely in the US.”
There was an element of self-censorship in the Second World War - not just what couldn't be shown, but what wouldn't - because of patriotism.
“Let’s face it, we were propagandists – the American and Allied press was not neutral, we were fighting the war and were an instrument of propaganda. There is such feeling on both sides, so many on our side who believe the war in Iraq was unjustified that a lot of people are happy to see it photographed in all its horror.”
The US government has imposed restrictions on showing the bodies of US soldiers killed in Iraq. Have you discussed this with any of your former colleagues?
“I’ve only talked with the New York Times and International Herald-Tribune. I was picture editor of the New York Times from 1967 to 1974, then I started New York Time Pictures, and I’ve been in touch ever since and have known every managing editor for last 40 years.
“So I’m known there as one who has broken the bounds in stages. I was picture editor of the Times when the famous Eddie Adams pic of an execution of a prisoner in Saigon came over the wire. And at the time I was determined that the picture be used because it was a shocking picture. I also remember the picture of the little naked girl running from the napalm. And I remember the discussion of that at the time. The news editor to whom I presented it was so relieved that she showed no pubic hair because that would have created a problem. Retouching used to be done consistently on genitals and breasts and things of that sort [for taste and also to get clearer reproduction]. Now retouching is easier to do electronically. My first newspaper job in June 1964 was at the Washington Post, they had never had an executive picture editor over the picture desk and photographers. The art department was three men devoted to retouching photos to make them look better. Mostly they made them worse.”
The New York Times published the "Pentagon Papers", but now must be frustrated by the restrictions in Iraq imposed by the military.
“The ‘Pentagon Papers’ was a journalistic triumph. I was asked by Abe Rosenthal, the managing editor of the New York Times, to take a man off my desk to work for a month on the ‘Pentagon Papers’. I wasn’t told why he was being detached. He systematically worked at illustrating the ‘Pentagon Papers’, then when time came to publish, the publisher got worried about the cost of so many extra pages and cut the space allotment so severely that very few pictures got used.
“And I think that’s one reason the ‘Pentagon Papers’ never got through to the general public. They did have an importance in terms of the government, especially: Nixon was furious. They may have had some affect in our strategic posture, but the ‘Pentagon Papers’ were a professional success and a public nothing. One of the reasons, I’m afraid, was that they weren’t properly illustrated.”
The casualties aren't being shown in Iraq.
“We still tend to use photographs in ways that favour our side. One of the remarkable things about the Jerome Delay pic was that it showed Iraqi casualties. In the Second World War it was simple, we didn’t show enemy casualties – we simply didn’t show the terrible things we did to them. [There was] a shipment of pics that came from Stockholm to London that showed the horrible effects of the night air raids on Berlin – stacks of bodies – and the censors took them away from me and wouldn’t even let me keep them.”
Can you comment on the effects on photographers of working in these combat zones, of getting in close, having a job to do, while remaining detached.
“One never tells a photographer who’s going into danger how to do it. That’s a decision each person has to make for himself. Picture editors have three basic functions: assignment, collection and usage. Very few picture editors have the ultimate decision as to what runs. They have an advisory function. But at the New York Times and Washington Post I reported directly to the managing editor, so I had direct input into what ran on page one, which is the most sensitive page on a newspaper.”
They also have the function of offering moral support to the photographers.
“The responsibility for photographers’ lives is a serious one but one you don’t talk about very much. You get men who are courageous enough to go, you just tell ’em to go, and let them worry. But I did try to stop Robert Capa from going to Vietnam; I had a bad feeling about that. I had hoped he would turn down the offer from Life, but he didn’t. I telephoned him and urged him not to go.
“By now I’ve lost a number of photographers. We were very lucky at Life in the Second World War: out of the whole war, Life lost two reporters but no photographers. It’s gotten a lot worse.
Robert Capa had an extraordinary work ethic – his two most famous pictures speak for his whole career. It doesn’t matter that the D-Day pics are blurry. He had that saying, “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.”
“Just a few days ago Richard Whelan [the biographer of Capa] sent me a letter that had been written to him concerning a soldier who Robert Capa photographed on Omaha Beach – in that case one of the films that was lost, because according to this soldier’s account, he was wounded and Capa actually assisted him. Robert Capa never mentioned that incident, and we’re not sure it’s true – but there is some evidence that Robert Capa put down his camera and assisted a wounded man on Omaha Beach. which is interesting.
Eugene Smith was one who paid the price of getting too close.
“Smith also believed in taking risks and ultimately was severely wounded on Okinawa because he did. His assignment was 24 hours in the day of an infantry man, and in the process of that he got wounded.
“Ralph Morse did a cover story for Life on a man who was wounded in France, he photographed him immediately after he was wounded, and followed him all the way back through the healing, through field stations and then back home. That was a memorable cover story for Life.
Why do you think the first photographs showing the extent of the holocaust didn’t make much impact?
“The camps were on the Eastern front, finally when the Americans advanced in Germany we got into the camps. Margaret Bourke-White probably made the single strongest photo of the liberation of prisoners, plus Johnny Florea was at Norhausen, and George Rodger at Belsen. All these pictures were in Life but by then it was too late.
“Rodger’s pictures were very strong, stomach turning. He resolved he was never going to photograph war again after that experience, it was horrible. But the very first pictures that reflected the Holocaust came from the East, from the Soviet side, there was no credit to any one photographer. The only [early] photographs published in the West were in the Illustrated London News, and maybe one page in Life magazine.
What characteristics does a person have to have to constantly deal in conflict or disaster: do they have to have more than just a steely nature?
“That’s a tough question, there so many different kind of people among photographers. [They need a] sense of rapport among people. Henri Cartier-Bresson and Robert Capa were very good friends but totally different approaches to photographing people. Henri never spoke to people, he just photographed them, whereas Robert Capa engaged people, that was his way. He advised other photographers to like people – and to let them know it. That was a nice quote. Henri Cartier-Bresson, unless he was doing a portrait, would never speak to people. He’d just be the silent observer.”
John G Morris’s Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism (University of Chicago Press, 2002) is absolutely riveting, with many stories behind some of history’s most famous images. Among them is the heartbreaking story of how all but 11 images from Robert Capa’s D-Day on Omaha Beach were destroyed in a processing accident. Morris’ memoir can be read on-line or bought second-hand.