Rearview Mirror

John G. Morris: Normandy, 1944

Words: Mark Edward Harris

A stint in Life magazine’s London bureau as Picture Editor during World War II was Morris’ boot camp. After the war he served as Picture Editor of Ladies’ Home Journal, Executive Editor of Magnum Photos, Assistant Managing Editor for Graphics at The Washington Post and Picture Editor of The New York Times. In 1983 he moved to Paris as National Geographic’s European Correspondent.

Since 1990 Morris has been a sought-after independent picture editor in addition to focusing on his own book projects. Get the Picture gave readers the backstory to many of the monumental moments in photojournalism, from Robert Capa’s D-Day series to the ethical issue that arose for photographers and editors on the night Princess Diana died trying to avoid paparazzi. In his new book, Quelque part en France (Somewhere in France, Marabout, Paris), Morris shares with readers his own photographic vision of war-torn Normandy in the wake of the D-Day invasion seven decades ago.

Morris’ goal was not to compete with his own photographers but to spend time walking in their boots. His brief time in the line of fire gave the young editor a better idea of what it was like to put oneself in harm’s way to record history. This early camera-in-hand experience played a role in the development of one of the greatest photo editors in the history of the medium.

What was the impetus for heading across the English Channel for France after D-Day?
I wanted to have a look for myself. I was the Picture Editor for Life magazine in London. I made up a job as the pool editor for press photographers on the Western Front and stayed in Normandy for four weeks. Life was a member of the four-way pool with the three wire services—Associated Press, UPI and International. On July 18, 1944 I crossed the Channel with Ned Buddy, who made up a similar position for the newsreels. We landed at Utah Beach. No more fighting was going on there, of course, but there was still plenty of fighting in the vicinity. I got myself shot at in Saint-Malo where a German garrison was holding out. I had been with Robert Capa that day. This was before the big breakthrough to Paris.

I had a Rollei with me, and come to think of it, it might have been Capa’s. I didn’t own a Rollei. One thing you don’t want to do if you’re a picture editor is compete with your own photographers. I never called myself a photographer. But during those four weeks I turned out to be a pretty good one, which came from working with great photographers. I knew what made a great picture.

What are the elements that make a great photo?
The easiest word to use is “impact.” A picture has to say something, has to have an idea. From my standpoint, it has to have passion, it has to have human feeling. It also should be well composed, because that’s how the idea comes through. A photographer has to have a head, a heart and an eye.

And you used all these elements very successfully to create the images in your new book. What’s the story behind the cover photo?
It’s a shot of three self-appointed orderlies. The boys volunteered. I did a number of images of locals, including portraits of refugees in an old chateau. I usually took only two frames in situations like this.

That’s the old school approach. Willy Ronis said he detested the photographic “mitrailleur”—machine gunner. He felt that you had to earn the photo.
As Marc Riboud said in the documentary about me called Get the Picture—the same title as my first book—“You shoot much better when you think. Bap, bap, bap, bap, bap…no good.”

What was D-Day like for you and your staff in the London bureau of Life?
Since I was the Life Picture Editor in London my biggest job for the magazine was to get pictures of the invasion of Europe. The text in my book consists of letters I wrote to my wife, including a letter I posted from London on D-Day, June 6, 1944. We had Bob Landry, Robert Capa and George Rodger landing on D-Day on three different beaches. The fiercest fighting was on the beach with the code name Omaha. That’s where Capa landed.

And then the tragic loss of many of the images he took that day in a darkroom accident back in London.
It looks now that the other images were never lost, they just never even happened. When Capa’s film came in, there was a note from him saying, “The action is in the 35mm.” There were four rolls of 35mm. It was Wednesday night. D-Day had happened Tuesday morning, so we were really under the gun. They had to be wired to New York for the Thursday deadline. I told the darkroom to rush development and give me contacts as soon as possible for editing.

A few minutes later, a young darkroom assistant named Dennis Banks came rushing into my office, which was a floor above the lab, and said, “John, the films are ruined! You were in such a rush for contacts I hung the film in the drying cabinet”—which was like a locker—“and closed the doors.” Which was not normal. He said there was too much heat and the emulsion ran. So I rushed back to the darkroom with him and held up the rolls one at a time. Sure enough, on the first three there was nothing. Just blank rolls. On the fourth roll there were 11 frames that could be printed, so I ordered prints of all of them. Those are the famous pictures.

I assumed that his conclusion was correct…that the other images had melted. My recollection is that I tossed those three blank rolls into the wastebasket that very night, and probably also the blank portion of the roll with the images, which I had to cut up for censorship anyway. People that have been investigating the incident claim there is no such thing as emulsion melting like that from the heat.

The new theory is that there was never anything on those three rolls—that Capa had those four rolls with him and there was such intense action that when he jumped on the LST to go back to England, he just bundled the four rolls together and, to play safe when he got to Portsmouth, sent me the four as well as the medium-format film he had shot with his Rollei of the troops going over and of the wounded on the way home. His account of the whole day was written in a book called Slightly Out of Focus, which he fictionalized to some extent because he was trying to sell it to Hollywood as a film.

Didn’t the darkroom attendant see images as he was squeegeeing the excess water off before drying them?
I don’t think he looked because when he rushed to me he thought they had all been lost—he hadn’t even noticed the 11 that were there. A Life photographer that was not accredited because he was German-born, Hans Wild, was also in the London office that night and took a quick look at the film and called me on the interphone saying the film looked great. But I don’t even know what he saw. I felt guilty because I was in charge of the whole operation, so to speak. I used to take the blame for the loss of Capa’s D-Day film. In recent years I’ve learned to say that I’m the one who saved the 11 frames.

The buck stops here, as Truman used to say, but you didn’t process the film. That was someone else’s job. Newspapers and magazines are on deadlines. That’s the reality of the business. What ever happened to Dennis Banks, who processed the film? Was he fired?
Some people thought he should have been fired, but neither Capa nor I would have stood for that. He continued to work for Life for a number of years after that. I actually saw him at the bureau in 1953, which was the first time I visited the offices after the war.

The year after that you lost your close friend Robert Capa to a landmine in Cambodia. How did that assignment come about?
I was running Magnum at that time and was having lunch with Ray Mackland, who succeeded Wilson Hicks at Life as Picture Editor. Capa was already in Tokyo. Camera Mainichi financed Capa’s trip to Japan for a variety of purposes. He brought with him a Magnum exhibition. He was given carte blanche to photograph what he wanted. Ray said his photographer Howard Sochurek had to come home for a family situation—his mother was dying—and asked if Capa would be interested in replacing him for four weeks in what they then called Indochina. It was just after Dien Bien Phu, and that war was winding down. I said, “I hope not,” but I said I would ask him. To my horror, he agreed to go. I was really shocked. I called him from my home in Armonk, New York. “Bob, it’s not our war, you don’t have to do this.” He replied, “Don’t worry, I’ll be back soon.” And we all know what happened on May 25, 1954. Sochurek had dinner with Bob in Tokyo the night he got the offer from Life, and by the time they finished dinner Bob still hadn’t made up his mind whether to accept or not. By the morning he had decided to accept.

War is a powerful opiate for many photographers. It’s possible he was missing that adrenalin rush.
War is like a dangerous woman. War can pull you in. I talked about this with Donald McCullin. Don questions himself all the time about his coverage of conflict. He’s covered 11 wars.

How did your career as a picture editor evolve?
It began at the University of Chicago. I majored in Political Science. I’m a Chicagoan basically. I went from Chicago to New York to work for Time, Inc. I had determined by my senior year that I wanted to be a journalist. I started a monthly student magazine called Pulse. It sold for 10 cents. Our engraving salesman designed the cover. It required two triangular pictures on every cover. That was my first test as a picture editor. My first wife was my model. In college I had five photographers. I paid them a dollar every time I got a usable print from them and an extra 29 cents if they had to use a flash bulb. Of my five photographers, four of them became professionals, including Myron Davis, who became a staff photographer for Life. I just love playing with pictures.

While in school I interviewed Robert Hutchins, who was a boy wonder. He became president of the University of Chicago at age 30. He recommended me to Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life, where I got a job in 1939 as an office boy for $20 a week. In 1940 Wilson Hicks brought me into his office as one of his assistants. I began assigning photographers. In 1941 they sent me to Hollywood. I was the Hollywood correspondent for Life. I was only 24 years old. I replaced Dick Pollard for a few weeks. He was great.

For Life I had to think up picture stories. For instance, we did “_Life_ Goes to Recess” at a public school. “_Life_ Goes to a Swing Shift Party.” When Pearl Harbor occurred, we did a story on the evacuation of the Japanese-Americans to Manzanar. I drove with Eliot Elisofon from the assembly point at the Santa Anita Racetrack in the first convoy to Manzanar in 1942.

The month before, on February 23, 1942, a Japanese submarine surfaced off the coast of Santa Barbara and fired shells into an oil storage depot. I picked up Elisofon and we drove up the coast using just my parking lights because there was a blackout ordered for the entire coast. The press convened the next morning where the shells had landed and I was talking to a sentry who was on guard and I asked him if he had seen anything. He showed me a shell fragment and I offered him five bucks for it. He said for five bucks I could borrow it for a photo. I said okay as long as it was an exclusive. I stepped on Eliot’s foot to get his attention and I whispered, “Let’s go up the road out of sight of the other photographers to take a picture.”

I loved the competition out there on the West coast. The L.A. Times was our principal competition. A picture of my hand holding the Japanese shell fragment was the lead picture in Life. The night after that we had the Los Angeles Air raid.

That really was the fog of war. How long were you in L.A.?
About a year. Unfortunately we had a family tragedy. Our first baby died in a crib while we were living in a Neutra apartment in Westwood. Fortunately my wife was pregnant, so it wasn’t long before we had another baby. That summer we went back to New York and then in 1943 I volunteered to go to England. There was a vacancy for a picture editor position for Life in London, which was a big job.

You have worked directly or indirectly with most of the great names in 20th century photojournalism. Who are your favorites?
I tend to pick them from my friends. Capa was the one I felt emotionally closest to. We were so different, yet I used to call him my Hungarian brother, saying, “I had no brother and my sister is a Republican.” I worked with Eisie—Alfred Eisenstaedt—Carl Mydans and, of course, Margaret Bourke-White. She had guts. She wasn’t afraid of anything. She was intelligent. She had taste. I saw her for the last time at a formal party on Park Avenue for the opening of an exhibition on Nehru’s India. They had a big print of her picture of Gandhi at the spinning wheel. She was suffering with Parkinson’s and died a few weeks later. She came with her nurse in her evening dress and when she saw me she ditched the nurse and took my arm.

I knew W. Eugene Smith from 1939 until his death in 1978. Gene was a brilliant man, but a disturbed man. I consider him the father of the modern photo essay. As a photographer he ridiculed objectivity. He was a passionate man who wanted his pictures to bring justice to the world. It’s difficult for a journalist who has strong convictions about politics to suppress those convictions, but if you’re an editor for publications such as The Washington Post or The New York Times as I was, you should be impartial.

It’s been an honor to be the boss of all these great photographers, though with photographers, it’s usually the photographers who boss the boss.

Fact File
All photographs copyright John G. Morris. Our thanks to Jeffrey D. Smith at Contact Press Images Inc. for providing reproductions for this article. Twenty-print portfolios (20” x 20” prints, edition of 11) of Morris’ Normandy images are available through Contact Press Images. (

Photo 1 Photo 2 Photo 3 Photo 4 Photo 5 Photo 6 Photo 7 Photo 8
Refugees, Montebourg, Manche, Normandy, circa July 24, 1944