John Godfrey Morris: one hundred years of passion

by Shahidul Alam | Published: 00:05, Aug 04,2017 | Updated: 19:29, Aug 05,2017

 
 

Nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc and other children fleeing from a napalm bombing during the Vietnam War. — Nick Ut/AP

‘THIS is one of most joyful letters I have ever written. I don’t know how else to put it: I have fallen madly in love again, and have permission to proclaim it, for that love is reciprocated.’ John was 93. Pat was nine years younger. The note was dated March 11, 2011.
To be nearly a hundred, and madly in love, now that is an example worth following. It was later that year that John Godfrey Morris had come to the Winterthur Gallery in Switzerland for the premiere of ‘Where Three Dreams Cross.’ I was both a photographer and a curator in an exhibition of photographs of Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. He smiled when he saw me and with an impish twinkle dragged me across the hallway. ‘There’s someone I want you to meet.’ John and Pat were living proof that age didn’t matter. I would get regular updates on their travels, on the films he was involved in, and at the latter stage, about his new book.
We first met during the fiftieth anniversary of World Press Photo in Amsterdam, October 2005. After my keynote, an elderly gentleman in the front row raised his hand. Luckily I hadn’t realised it was the great John Morris speaking, such generous praise from someone as eminent would otherwise have left me floored. Since then much of our communication had been by email, and I hadn’t really expected him to come to the show at Winterthur, though of course I had invited him, hoping that he might.
John led the annual ‘Student Strike for Peace’ at the University of Chicago 81 years ago. He didn’t accomplish his goal of stopping World War II, but he has uncompromisingly attacked his government for its war mongering, ever since. After graduating from the University of Chicago, John had joined Life magazine as a clerk, and worked himself up to becoming London picture editor. Later, he went on to work for the New York Times, Washington Post, National Geographic and the Magnum Agency.
We stayed in touch, our mutual activism being the glue. While he didn’t know the latest apps, he never let technology intimidate him. His emails were regular and prolific, his newsletters, passionate. Much of our correspondence was about his peace efforts, his passion for photography being matched only by his hatred for war. He would regularly send me posters and pamphlets of anti-war campaigns, which would invariably be accompanied by not so gentle prods to take urgent action. In 2011, when we invited him to join the Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer and me for the Chobi Mela videoconference, he readily joined from Paris and wasted no time in berating his government for its rampage in the Middle East.
Later that year, when my book My Journey as a Witness came out he promptly sent me this note: ‘Dear Shahidul: The book came, thanks to Skira Milan, and I have already devoured it. One of the most important books ever created by a photographer, and it goes far beyond photography. I called Salgado to thank him for his contribution.’ He reaffirmed it in the review he wrote in L’oeil De La Photographie, ‘I regard this as the most remarkable book by a single photographer since a messenger brought me a first copy of The Decisive Moment by Henri Cartier-Bresson in 1952.’
While photographers attain stardom, the role of photo editors is not always recognised. Nick Ut’s photo of nine-year-old Phan Thị Kim Phúc running naked towards the camera, has changed the course of history. It was Horst Faas, the bureau chief of AP, who argued over telex, that the photo had to be released. Frontal nudity was an absolute no-no at the Associated Press in 1972. Hal Buell, AP’s New York photo editor, agreed that the news value overrode any reservations about nudity. But the story didn’t end there. The New York Times had the same rule. It was John Morris who decided not only to print it, but to use it on front page. He took a similar stance for Eddy Adam’s photo of the execution of a Viet Cong soldier. Both photos went on to win Pulitzer prizes, and became the centre of people’s resistance to the war.
John was also the man who had initiated and inspired the ‘Family of Man’ exhibition at MOMA New York, inducted Eugene Smith into Magnum, first published Capa’s iconic photos of the D Day landings. Himself a recipient of the Légion d’Honneur, and an Infinity Award for lifetime achievement given by the International Center of Photography, John remained frank and modest. In response to a request to join me at a talk, he wrote, ‘I hope you are not placing too much confidence in me. I am probably not as critical of the press as you are. For years I worked for the Establishment press. In retrospect we made serious mistakes but we tried.’
Despite ill health, he had promised to come to Amsterdam for the launching of my book at Foam Gallery. In the end, the journey became too difficult but he was back to his witty self a week later, ‘Yes, I’m still around,’ he wrote, ‘The New York Times has had my obituary ready for years, and while I’ve never read it, I have suggested some pictures for them to choose from. Choosing pictures for advance obits used to be part of my job at the [New York] Times.’
He went on, ‘The Times prepared to bury me during the early morning of March 26, 1972. I had gone to the hospital that night for what turned out to be a false alarm heart attack. Managing Editor Abe Rosenthal, hearing that I would not be coming to work that day, ordered an obit prepared. On a recent trip to the Times’s picture morgue I found a portrait of me by Times staffer Artie Brower, highly retouched, that had been sent up that night for engraving, marked ‘1 col MORRIS 3d ED RUSH TO CR.” One of the nicest compliments I’ve ever been paid.’
Very much a man of today, he was passionate about Obama, and vehemently opposed to Trump, actively campaigning in both elections. The last photo he sent me was of him, lying in a hospital bed with a defiant sign saying, ‘Don’t vote Trump!’
A short mail arrived on 6 September 2015, it had these lines,
‘I am working hard on a huge book of personal and historic pictures called My Century, aimed at publication on my centennial, December 7, 2016. Want you to be in it.’
The launch of the book on his 100th birthday didn’t work out, but since I was in Paris anyway, I was happy to accept Pat’s invitation to the surprise party on December 6, the eve of his birthday. Robert Pledge, who was editing the book, and I, went a bit early, so we’d have time together with John and Pat. The book was about the last 100 years as seen through John’s eyes. The World Wars, Vietnam, John’s associations with the greats of photography, Bresson, Capa, his induction of Eugene Smith into Magnum. Being an eye-witness to the assassination of Robert Kennedy. Not only had he witnessed it all, he had an incredible memory and remembered every detail. Excitedly, John brought out the dummy and went over it page by page, telling us some of the hidden stories. That was the last time we saw each other.
Robert rang me on Sunday July 23, to tell me that John wasn’t well. He feared the end was nearing. The book had not come out. There were so many permissions to be obtained. The photographers had all generously waived their royalties, but even zero dollar contracts needed to be signed, and the paperwork was simply sapping up time. On Friday the 28, John’s time ran out. This time the New York Times did run the obituary, as did many other publications across the globe.
John’s take on photography had little to do with technique. ‘Great photographers have to have three things. They have to have heart if they’re going to photograph people. They have to have an eye, obviously, to be able to compose. And they have to have a brain to think about what they’re shooting. Too many photographers have two of the three attributes, but not the third.’
It was this understanding and this passion for all the three attributes, that made him one of the greatest photo editors we have known. His passion, his conviction and his courage are what I will forever admire. His friendship is what I will always cherish.

Shahidul Alam is a photographer, writer and curator.

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