Shooting Star

Pioneering photojournalist Morris Berman's images are powerful portraits of this American life

Unlike many photographers with lifelong newspaper careers, Berman never left the beat.

Right up to his retirement, he continued shooting the famous and the infamous, and covered just about all of Pittsburgh's sports teams.

His sports coverage yielded his most widely recognized and acclaimed shot. Named one of the century's 100 best sports photographs by Sports Illustrated, it shows New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle on his knees after being sacked by a Pittsburgh Steelers defender in a 1964 game. At the end of an illustrious career, alone on the field, his helmet off, blood trickling from his temple, Tittle is the modern image of the fallen Greek hero.

Morris Berman's exhibition includes these images of firemen rescuing a woman from a burning building in Pittsburgh, and a soldier at the altar of a church in war-torn Italy; at right, Berman is being prevented from covering a visit by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
(left) photo courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazet
Morris Berman's exhibition includes these images of firemen rescuing a woman from a burning building in Pittsburgh, and a soldier at the altar of a church in war-torn Italy; at right, Berman is being prevented from covering a visit by Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
Morris Berman made these photographs of a baptism and the young Muhammad Ali during his career with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Morris Berman made these photographs of a baptism and the young Muhammad Ali during his career with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Yet Berman managed to make some equally poignant images of more anonymous moments and people. And many of those raise quiet existential questions that go to the heart of what photography does best.

"No other medium can pay tribute to an object or person as faithfully as a photograph," says Bill Jay, former associate professor of photography history at Arizona State University.

And no tool freezes that object and person in time more chillingly than a camera.

Looking at the frozen anonymity in Berman's photos, one can't help but wonder: What ever happened to the mother who's wailing at the burial of a child hit by a truck? Or the stunned family huddled beside the smoldering ruin of their Pittsburgh home? Or the little girl who threw down her crutches to take a silver bullet from the hand of the Lone Ranger?

But Berman isn't prone to that kind of reflection. He has a caption knowledge of the events that brought the people in front of his lens. And he doesn't dwell on the happenstance events he recorded on film.

For years, in fact, he kept the pictures tucked away in fat scrapbooks, a few framed and hung on the walls of his house.

Occasionally, he says, he's wondered whether any of the work measured up. It's a question that the exhibition has answered in its own way.

"The kinds of things people have said to me," he muses, "you'd almost think I was some kind of hero. But really I don't know why they make a big fuss out of these pictures. It was a job, that's all. I tried to get the best picture I could."


Walking through the West Valley Art Museum in a red Windbreaker imprinted with "Phoenix Open," Berman looks every bit the golf retiree who zips from one clubhouse meeting to another. But then he swings a Nikon FA camera from under his arm into his hand and puts it gently on a nearby table.

"He's always shooting," says Frank Hoy, a friend of Berman's and associate professor of photojournalism at Arizona State University. "He's really a legend in news photography. A lot of photographers just covered their assignments and went home. But Morrie has stayed involved."

A handsome man with broad, smiling features and a full head of wavy gray hair, Berman says that he and his first wife, Ruth, who died in 1990, moved from Pittsburgh to Sun City in 1979 to be near one of his brothers.

But not necessarily to quit working. For a while, he freelanced for the Sun City paper and the Arizona Republic. And he's been a presence at ASU, giving annual talks to journalism students for the past 20 years.

Hoy says that Berman recently donated $5,000 to fund two work stations for digital photography at the journalism school.

Electronic darkrooms are a world away from the bare-bones closets and glass negatives that Berman began with in the 1920s. But he's a realist about the changes in the medium.

"I know this is the way things are going," he says. "Pretty soon, most of the photographers will be using computers and digital things. I always tell them that these fancy things don't change the fact that someone still has to stand behind the camera. Someone still has to make the shot."

Berman didn't set out to be a news photographer. The son of Jewish immigrants from Bucharest, he grew up with two brothers and a sister in Wheeling, West Virginia, a steel town tucked into the rolling hills along the Ohio River.

Though he spent his life chasing facts, he began it with a dose of fiction.

"When I was born," Berman says, "the doctor asked my mother what name they should put on me." Her accent was so strong that when she said "Morris," the doctor heard and wrote down "Wallace."

Years later, as a reporter, Berman found in the county clerk's files that he'd been living under an assumed name. But it's the one he preferred.

"I always hated that name 'Wallace.'"

As a high school student in the 1920s, Berman excelled at basketball and received several scholarship offers to play college ball after his 1926 graduation from high school. But his family's poverty forced him to set the offers aside.

"My father was a shoemaker," says Berman. "He made them by hand. The problem was that machine production of shoes had pretty much taken over here. So he was always struggling.

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