Shooting Star

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

The lag time between events at the front and the audience at home could be substantial.

Nearly everything Berman shot was picked up in a diplomatic pouch and shipped back across the Atlantic to the Pentagon, Berman recalls. "Then it went to Kodak and back to the Pentagon again before being released to the public."

"My wife's mother was always looking for the pictures we shot in publications like Pageant magazine, Popular Photography and the New York Mirror," says Berman. "But it would take weeks, maybe months, before she'd see them."

Morris Berman was a photographer for the Army Signal Corps during World War II.
courtesy of Morris Berman
Morris Berman was a photographer for the Army Signal Corps during World War II.
Berman's photographs cover half a century of world history.
Paolo Vescia
Berman's photographs cover half a century of world history.

Some of Berman's most vivid war scenes were shot in the months following the January 1944 Allied landings at Anzio.

The assault, along a 15-mile stretch of Italian coast just 30 miles from Rome, outflanked and completely fooled the Germans, who had concentrated their main body of forces far to the south.

But, in what turned out to be a huge and deadly blunder, American and British forces failed to capitalize on the surprise, leaving the hills overlooking the beach to the Germans.

"We could have cut off the German army and gone right on through to Rome," says Berman. "But we dug in instead. We all made foxholes and lined them with straw and sat in the mud. And, boy, we needed them.

"They stayed up there for months shooting down our throats. They had a monster gun we called 'Anzio Annie.' It was on railroad tracks that backed into a cave. We couldn't find that damned thing. They'd roll it out whenever they wanted and just pounded the soldiers down below."

There's an eerie matter-of-factness about Berman's photographs of life amid the siege. Many of them reflect the day-to-day calm between battlefield storms: upbeat scenes of Marlene Dietrich performing for troops near Anzio and a picnic below the shattered ruins of Monte Cassino; or mundane documentary shots of German gun emplacements or civilians, soldiers and prisoners of war marching to or from the front, waiting for food or for medical aid.

Yet some, like the one of the seaside town of Nettuno, next to Anzio, show the pulverizing brunt of war: The stone buildings have been reduced to rock piles; the trees burned to stalks.

Berman's images chart the war's progress through Italy. They cover the liberation of Rome, in June 1944, and finally the startling scenes of Mussolini's body on display in Milan in late April 1945.

"My driver and I had entered the city before any other American troops," says Berman. "Not a nice feeling, but it turned out all right."

The German occupation of Italy had all but disintegrated by then. And anti-fascist partisan fighters had emerged from the underground as the new force in the streets.

"The partisans had killed Mussolini and his mistress and a bunch of others with them up near the border, around Lake Como," says Berman. "They brought them down to Milan, where they paraded them around the city, beating and shooting into their dead bodies and spitting on them."

They finally strung the bodies, hog style, by their heels from the overhang of a gas station marquee.

"We didn't get there until after they'd cut them down and laid them with their arms hooked together." Berman says. "But some of the partisans brought me over to where the bodies were."

"It was a terrible thing to see," he goes on, "but I felt I had to take that picture as a kind of proof. It shows he's dead. There's no question about it. But how do we know that Hitler is dead? There are no pictures of him, so there's a missing link there."

Some days, Berman has a "no big deal" attitude toward his war work. But other days, he confesses to being overwhelmed by the contradictory feelings of pride, horror and regret that it continues to arouse in him.

"It's strange to me to see so many people coming to see these pictures, and they're enjoying them," he says. "So many of them bring back unpleasant memories, things I don't really want to remember, to tell you the truth."

The Arizona room at Berman's home is a personal museum of press mementos from his long career.

On the wall in one corner hangs his press photographer's license plate -- number 46 -- from Pennsylvania. Tucked elsewhere are pictures of Berman with arms around a few of photography's luminaries -- such as Eddie Adams and Joe Rosenthal. Rosenthal's renowned World War II image of the flag being raised on Iwo Jima peeks out from a dark corner.

The room has plenty of bare spots these days. Most of Berman's framed pictures were hauled to his show at the West Valley Art Museum, leaving the walls with more exposed nails than photographs.

But the stacks of papers and albums piled on tables and low shelves around the rest of the art-filled house, which he shares with his second wife, Sun City artist Diana Tollefson, whom he married a few years ago, are a sedimentary-style archive.

"I think you'll like this one of Mazeroski," he says, picking through the layers of one pile.

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