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In 50
years at
LIFE, Ladies'
Home Journal,
the Washington
Post, and the New
York Times, John G.
Morris, AB'37,          
assigned and edited 
photographs that      
became part of the     
national psyche, from
D-Day to Vietnam.    
Morris writes about 
those images--and  
the stories and pho-
tographers behind
them--in Get the
Picture: A Per-
sonal History
of Photojour-
I am a journalist but not a reporter and not a photographer. I am a picture editor. I have worked with photographers, some of them famous, others unknown, for more than fifty years. I have sent them out on assignment, sometimes with a few casual suggestions, other times with detailed instructions, but always the challenge is the same: Get the picture. I’ve accompanied photographers on countless stories; I’ve carried their equipment and held their lights, pointed them in the right direction if they’ve needed pointing. I’ve seconded their alibis when things went badly and celebrated with them when things went well. I have bought and sold their pictures for what must total millions of dollars. I have hired scores of photographers, and, sadly, I’ve had to fire a few. I’ve testified for them in court, nursed them through injury and illness, saved them from eviction, fed them, buried them. I have accompanied unwed photographers to the marriage license bureau as their witness. Now I am married to one.

July 1944. Morris left his London desk to join photographers covering the war in France. In August, Life’s Robert Capa suggested checking into a hotel on Mont-Saint-Michel and “commuting” to the front at Saint-Malo, where a German garrison was holding out. Morris’s curiosity almost cost him dearly: “I photographed this young German in a lineup of prisoners who had been firing upon us (barely missing me) only an hour earlier."

Photographers are the most adventurous of journalists. They have to be. Unlike a reporter, who can piece together a story from a certain distance, a photographer must get to the scene of the action, whatever danger or discomfort that implies. A long lens may bring his subject closer, but nothing must stand between him and reality. He must absolutely be in the right place at the right time. No rewrite desk will save him. He must show it as it is. His editor chooses among those pictures to tell it as it was—or was it? Right or wrong, the picture is the last word.

Thus the serious photojournalist becomes a professional voyeur. Often he hates himself for it. In 1936, Bob Capa made a picture of a Spanish Republican soldier, caught in the moment of death. It is one of the most controversial images of the 20th century. Capa came to hate it. Don McCullin, the great English photographer who has covered conflict on four continents, says simply, “I try to eradicate the past.” He is speaking of how he must deal with what he has seen, because, in fact, he has done his best to preserve the past. And Eddie Adams, whose Pulitzer Prize–winning 1968 photograph of the execution of a young Vietcong prisoner by Saigon’s chief of police is a kind of ghastly updating of Capa’s image, says only, in his trademark staccato, “I don’t wanna talk about it.”

The picture editor is the voyeurs’ voyeur, the person who sees what the photographers themselves have seen but in the bloodless realm of contact sheets, proof prints, yellow boxes of slides, and now pixels on the screen. Picture editors find the representative picture, the image, that will be seen by others, perhaps around the world. They are the unwitting (or witting, as the case may be) tastemakers, the unappointed guardians of morality, the talent brokers and celebrity makers. Most important—or disturbing—they are the fixers of “reality” and “history.”—J.G.M.

Editor's Note: See the printed issue of the magazine for more images. There you will find many more photgraphs from Mr. Morris.