Shooting Star

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

"Shooting spot news was difficult at best. But it was possible."

Berman recalls that when he covered presidential and other dignitary visits, "I usually had a satchel full of film holders, maybe 12 that could take 24 pictures. But I think having that limitation helped to make you think about the image."

The bulky camera and bags of film were far less mobile than the smaller 35-millimeter cameras that became popular during World War II and the Korean War. But the system had advantages.

Sports Illustrated named this photograph of New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle one of the 20th century’s best sports images.
Morris Berman
Sports Illustrated named this photograph of New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle one of the 20th century’s best sports images.
Berman shot this scene of the 1944 Allied liberation of Rome from the back of a Jeep.
Morris Berman
Berman shot this scene of the 1944 Allied liberation of Rome from the back of a Jeep.

"With the 4-by-5 camera," says Jay, "you could shoot single images, maybe flash a picture of the celebrity coming out of the courtroom and rush straight back to the lab and print it. You didn't have to wait to develop a whole roll of film."

Jay says this practice of grabbing slices of life and hustling them into the afternoon edition initially didn't do much for the reputations of news photographers. "They were really seen as the lowest of the low in those early days," he says.

They were often featured in cheap novels of the 1920s and 1930s as bottom-feeding scavengers who would go anywhere and do anything for a picture.

But Berman hardly fit the stereotype. Instead of a cigar-champing adrenaline junkie who lurked around the courthouse steps, he was more the smiling charmer who seemed to befriend everyone.

"There were plenty of people who didn't want me to take their pictures, usually people in some kind of trouble," says Berman, "but I always thought part of the job was to go with my hat in hand. Fact was, I needed these people I was shooting to help me do my job."

Berman recalls going out once to get a shot of a woman who'd been traveling with a man arrested for the murder of a local shopkeeper.

Says Berman, "The police had let her go because she was sort of a sorry case and hadn't really done anything. She didn't really want to be photographed. She was staying with her mother. So I talked to her mother and convinced her that having a picture in the paper might help other girls like her daughter. That did the trick. I'm not sure whether I should have been proud or ashamed of that. But that was the job, to get the picture, whatever it took."


At the West Valley exhibit, Berman passes a wall of his wartime photographs. He pauses and shakes his head at a shot that his Jeep driver snapped of him leaning over to photograph a dead German soldier.

The soldier's face has been burned or bloated into a puffy, dark mask. And his splayed-back arms look tree-limb stiff.

"I don't know why I let him do that," he finally says, lifting his hand wearily. "What does it prove? Bragging about someone dead on the other side? I guess I was glad it was a German soldier and not an American. But there were plenty of Americans. And I saw them, too."

Walking on, he adds, "You do crazy things. It's not a normal situation. Seeing these sometimes makes me feel like someone else was in my body taking these pictures."

Berman says he was a lucky exception to the Army custom of "not letting people exercise whatever talents they had as civilians."

His draft board initially deferred inducting him so he could join the war as a correspondent for one of the news services. But as the Allied armies advanced across North Africa in late 1942 and early 1943, Berman got antsy.

"I kept reading about how, in Africa, Rommel [the prominent German general] was being pushed back," he says. "I thought, 'My God, this war's going to be over before I get there.' So I went back to the draft board and said send me in."

He was snatched up by the Army Signal Corps, which was then assembling teams of news photographers to cover the fighting in Europe and the Pacific.

Says Berman, "They put me with this team of Army Pictorial Service photographers who were about to begin shooting the war in color. It was supposed to be a special 90-day mission, in and out."

He flew into Algiers in 1943 to photograph the mopping up of the North African campaign. Then he made his way to the Italian front in the winter of 1943, where the German army was slowing Allied advances north toward Rome.

As the Italian campaign bogged down into some of the fiercest and costliest American fighting in Europe, Berman's 90-day order slipped.

"I once reminded the guy in charge of the Fifth Army Pictorial Service that our 90 days were up," Berman recalls. "And he just told me we could take those orders and stick them. We don't have time to send anyone home."

Berman wasn't attached to a particular company. He roamed with a driver and a Jeep loaded with camera gear across the front lines.

"I was really there to be the eyes for people back home who couldn't be there and see what I was seeing," he says. "It wasn't the small world we have today, where things you photograph in the morning are seen that afternoon, if not sooner."

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