John Morris died in Paris, aged 100, on July 28. While he photographed few published images himself, as photo editor for Life magazine, and the New York Times — among others — he was responsible for the publication of many of them that shaped our understanding of history from WW II through Vietnam. Let’s consider just a few.
On June 6, 1944, famed Life photojournalist Robert Capa slogged onto Omaha Beach and returned more than 100 images of combat to Morris in Life’s London office. A lab accident destroyed nearly all, but Morris was able to salvage 11 images for the magazine’s next issue that conveyed much of the day’s story in pictures.
With the New York Times, Morris successfully fought for publication of three especially notable, Pulitzer prize – winning photos that helped tell the story of the Vietnam war’s horror. On Feb. 1, 1968, South Vietnam’s national police chief, Nguyen Loan, summarily executed captured Viet Cong Nguyen Lem on a public street during the Tet offensive. AP photographer Eddie Adams captured the moment of Loan’s pistol shot. Morris succeeded in making the controversial photo the paper’s lead the next day.
On June 8, 1972, 21-year-old AP photographer Nick Ut captured the iconic photo of 9-year-old Kim Phuc, naked and running in terror from the village of Trang Bang as she burned from a South Vietnamese napalm attack. Given the circumstances, Morris successfully overcame the paper’s policy against publishing nudity to run the image on their front page.
Telling the story of the Vietnam war’s U.S. home front, Morris got front page coverage of John Filo’s photo of an anguished Mary Vecchio as she knelt over the body of Kent State student Jeffrey Miller, killed there by Ohio national guardsmen on May 4, 1970. A runaway who traveled from Florida for the protest, it is sobering to realize that Vecchio was my age (14) that day. Filo, a photojournalism student at Kent State, won a Pulitzer for the picture.
Think of John Morris as you consider the memorable photos that appeared in those publications during those times. Morris also received a NYT byline for his eyewitness account of Sen. Robert Kennedy’s assassination in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968. Probably not well noted among the general public, Morris was an important part of telling America’s story in the 20th century.