Shooting Star

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

"I had these chances to go to college, but I didn't want to be a burden to the family. So I just decided to get to work."

He thought he'd join the administration at Wheeling Steel, which paid about $18 a week. But in 1928, a basketball buddy tipped him to an opening at the Wheeling News-Register.

"The job paid $3 less a week than the one at Wheeling Steel," Berman recalls, "so I was already in the hole. But I'd done some writing for the school paper. Maybe I thought I could do a little more by continuing with that."

Italian partisans shaved this woman's head as punishment for consorting with German soldiers.
Morris Berman
Italian partisans shaved this woman's head as punishment for consorting with German soldiers.
Morris Berman began his journalistic career as a reporter in the 1920s.
Paolo Vescia
Morris Berman began his journalistic career as a reporter in the 1920s.

The 1920s and 1930s were the heyday of American newspapers. Competing publishers and multiple daily editions kept reporters employed even as the Depression lowered the boom on other parts of the economy. Radio was the only other media competition. Yet, like photography, it was still a relatively young force in American culture.

Berman recalls that, like a lot of small papers of the day, the News-Registerdidn't have a staff photographer or photo department.

"So I bought a camera," he says, "something called an Ikonta B, a German camera, and began taking shots for my own stories. Pretty soon, the other guys were saying, 'Hey, can you get a picture for me?'"

The Ikonta was a medium-format camera, meaning it held film that was about three times the size of today's 35-millimeter cameras.

"But I can remember using cameras a few times that took glass plates that you had to put the photo emulsion on yourself," he says. "It was really a one-man shop. I did all the developing and everything. And it stayed that way most of my career."

In the early 1930s, he occasionally sent pictures to the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph. He began working for the Pittsburgh paper in 1937. "It was on the promise that I could continue being a reporter."

But one week into the job, he adds, "They handed me a Speed Graphic 4-by-5 camera -- I'd never used the thing before -- and they said go cover this steel strike in Beaver Falls."

The strike, at Moltrup Steel Company, was part of a lengthy effort by the Congress of Industrial Organizations (part of AFL-CIO) to win industrywide recognition for its unions. America's larger steel companies were on the verge of accepting them. But smaller steel companies, like Moltrup, about 40 miles outside of Pittsburgh, were still fighting the unions. The strikes had become increasingly violent, often pitting workers against company and state police.

Despite that, says Berman, he didn't expect any violence. But he was wrong. He found an angry crowd of workers in a standoff with police. Shortly after Berman arrived, a state trooper accidentally fired a tear-gas canister that killed a bystander -- one of the 18 people killed that year in strikes against small steel companies.

"All hell broke loose," Berman recalls. "Most of the other professional photographers got the hell out of there. But I didn't know any better, so I kept shooting."

The pictures he got that day include one -- in the exhibition -- which is a 1930s equivalent of the photograph from the 1970 shootings at Kent State. The picture shows a victim sprawled face down on the pavement, a man racing to his side. Wisps of tear gas can be seen rising from the just-fired canister in the background.

"When my editors saw that shot," Berman says, "they told me to forget the job on the city desk. I was going to be their photographer."

The role of the news photographer was far from defined, says Berman. "Most of the people in the newsrooms were word guys who maybe didn't understand pictures as much as editors later did."

But that year provided some remarkable clues about the power of pictures to tell a story.

That spring, Sam Shere and about 14 other photographers made their landmark pictures of the German zeppelin Hindenburg catching fire and crashing at a landing field in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The calamity killed 36 people -- and the appeal of crossing the Atlantic by blimp. Yet it propelled photographs -- now a proven vehicle of sensational facts -- onto American front pages.

Calamity images like the Hindenburg left no doubt that photography offered a far more convincing picture of reality than the engravings -- often copied from photographs -- that newspapers had relied on in earlier decades.

The camera's machine-made image was thought to be more objective and accurate than a hand-drawn account.

As a result, photography substantially narrowed the gap between the reality and the image of an event, says Bill Jay. It allowed readers for the first time "to look at photographs and put themselves in the position of the photographer and say, 'This is what that must have looked like,' and to some degree, 'This is what that must have felt like.'"

Berman recalls that getting the pictures wasn't as easy as it is now. The Speed Graphic, the workhorse of the newsroom, was anything but speedy.

"The nature of the job in the 1930s was to carry around 50 pounds of camera and equipment," says Bradley Wilson, executive director of the National Press Photographer's Association, to which Berman has belonged since its formation in 1946. "They had no electronic flashes. They had flash bulbs and sheet film. So you'd expose one side of the film, then pull out the film holder, slide it back in and expose the other. There was no rapid-fire eight frames a second that we can do nowadays. It might take minutes to expose a picture.

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