The eye that caught Patton battling spaghetti

Get the Picture
April 11, 2003

John G. Morris describes himself as a journalist, yet not a writer or a photographer. He has spent a lifetime organising photographers. For more than 50 years, he has commissioned, cajoled and cared about that unusual breed - the photojournalist.

Get the Picture is his richly illustrated personal account of a life that leads us from the heady days at Life (first as Hollywood correspondent, then, through the turbulent years of the second world war, as London picture editor) via the executive editorship of the legendary Magnum Photos, and positions as picture editor at The Ladies' Home Journal , The Washington Post and The New York Times . A glance at the index gives some indication of the extraordinary world Morris lived through: Jean Harlow, Harper's Bazaar , Averell Harriman and Sir Arthur "Bomber" Harris seem unlikely bedfellows, as do Sam Goldwyn, Good Housekeeping and Mikhail Gorbachev. His life sometimes reads like one fascinating anecdote after another.

It is not hard to see the attractions of his world. Once he stumbled across General Patton leading a tank column in training in the Californian desert:

"General, what's going on here?" he asked. "How the hell should I know?...

Tank warfare is a helluva lot like spaghetti! You can't push at it from behind!" A couple of years later, newly liberated Paris finds Morris escorting Marlene Dietrich into the "famous little bar on the rue Cambon" past a canoodling Ernest Hemingway.

This is also a book for anyone interested in how pictures get to the page and how practitioners work, from Robert Capa and Henri Cartier-Bresson to Sebastião Salgado. (With Capa, Morris nearly failed: he describes how all but 11 frames of Capa's four rolls of the 1944 D-Day landings were destroyed by Life 's London laboratory.) Through the course of some eight decades - the new afterword is about photographing the September 11 tragedy - Morris analyses the strengths and weaknesses of photographer and picture editor. He believes photographers to be not very good at reporting on the causes of conflict but very good at demonstrating the effects. Yet he also recounts evidence to the contrary: the struggles of the tormented genius Eugene W. Smith to portray "Minamata disease" - the result of mercury poisoning in Japan - whose iconic photograph of a paralysed blind girl being bathed raised international awareness of the terrible damage we do to our environment.

Morris sometimes worries that photographers are voyeurs and that "the picture editor is the voyeurs' voyeur... the tastemakers, the unappointed guardians of morality... the fixers of 'reality' and of 'history'". He foresees an image-rich future in which any child can become a picture editor by simply choosing from a menu. But he warns that we will still need to educate that choice.

David Wason is a writer and television documentary producer.

Get the Picture: A Personal History of Photojournalism

Author - John G. Morris
ISBN - 0 226 53914 8
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Price - £12.00
Pages - 334

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