Obituary: John G. Morris, Photo Editor of Capa and Smith, 100

July 28, 2017

John G. Morris, the legendary photo editor for LIFE, The New York Times, National Geographic and Magnum, died today in Paris. He was 100. Robert Pledge, a friend of Morris’s and a fellow member of the W. Eugene Smith Fund board, reported the news to The New York Times.

While working as a photo editor for LIFE in the London office in 1944, Morris had the responsibility of editing Robert Capa’s photos of the D-Day invasion of Normandy. As Morris recounted in his 1998 memoir, Get the Picture: a Personal History of Photojournalism, there was a mishap during the rush to process and dry the negatives, but he was able to ship 11 photos to the New York office, providing an indelible view of the Allied landing from the perspectives of the troops hitting Omaha Beach.

Morris had first met Capa in 1930 and through him met the other photographers, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, who would eventually form Magnum Photos in 1947. Morris became the collective’s first executive editor in 1953. Years later, he said about his conversations with the Magnum founders, “Photography was simply their way of expressing their concern about the world and what was going on. They didn’t talk about F-stops and exposures and what film they were using.”

He convinced photojournalist W. Eugene Smith to join the cooperative. The two worked together closely as Smith was working on his year-long project about Pittsburgh. In 1956, Smith insisted that LIFE publish the work as a 60-page essay, the editors refused; it was later published in Popular Photography‘s annual. The project, and Smith himself, had drained much of Morris’s time without netting income for Magnum; he left the agency shortly after the project’s publication.

He briefly worked at The Washington Post, then joined The New York Times. During his tenure at The Times, he convinced editors to publish Eddie Adams’s photo of a street execution in Saigon and Nick Ut’s photo of a naked girl running from burning napalm on the paper’s front page. 

In 1978, after Smith died, Morris and fellow editors Jim Hughes and Howard Chapnick created the W. Eugene Smith Memorial Fund. Each year, the Fund awards a grant to a photojournalist working in the humanistic tradition of Smith. Morris remained a member of the Smith Fund board until his death.

In 1983, he moved to Paris and worked for six years as a photo editor for National Geographic.

He published a memoir, Get the Picture, in 1998, and coauthored Robert Capa:D-Day, published in 2004. In 2014, he published a book of photos he took in Normandy in 1944, where he traveled after the invasion; the images were also shown at the International Center of Photography and at an outdoor exhibition in Rennes, Brittany, near the sites where some of the images were made. He began fundraising to self-publish a second memoir, My Century, in 2016.

While living in Paris in retirement, he remained politically active and was an anti-war activist. “Why is it that, after all these years of wars being photographed that we still have war?” he said in a 2016 interview for Magnum Photos. “Does our coverage of war tend to make heroes of soldiers? Is that the right thing to do? It’s sadly unfortunate that people have different reactions. A picture that may turn one person off, turns another person on. I, personally, think that pictures should be for real, they should be truthful.”

In 2010, the International Center of Photography in New York gave Morris a Lifetime Achievement Award. He also received the Joseph A. Sprague Memorial Award from the National Press Photographers Association in 1971; the Bayeux-Calvados Award for war correspondents in 2004; and France’s Légion d’Honneur in 2009.

According to The New York Times, Morris is survived by his partner, Patricia Trocmé; four sons and four grandchildren. His three wives and two of his children pre-deceased him.

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