Shooting Star

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

Coming up empty, he switches to a second stack and pulls out an image of Bill Mazeroski, the Pittsburgh Pirates hero in the 1960 World Series win over the New York Yankees. Berman caught him after the game as a young titan lounging easily against the clubhouse wall, smiling, his legs outstretched, still half-dressed in his uniform.

"I think it's better in some ways than the one at the museum," Berman says. "He's really soaking it in. You can see just how much he's enjoying it. I always tried to let the faces tell the stories. I think this one does."

Frank Hoy says many of these pictures epitomize the extraordinary career that Berman had as a news photographer. "He really was a cut above the average shooter."

Morris Berman holds the Speed Graphic camera he used for much of his career as a photojournalist.
Paolo Vescia
Morris Berman holds the Speed Graphic camera he used for much of his career as a photojournalist.
Morris Berman with several pictures from the archive of photographs he keeps at his Sun City home.
Paolo Vescia
Morris Berman with several pictures from the archive of photographs he keeps at his Sun City home.

And he made many of his photographs at a time when editors didn't fully recognize or know how to use the trenchant power of pictures to expand upon the details of the written page.

The rule of the newsroom, says Hoy, was that photos "had to tell not only a story, but the story. The idea was to show a fact reported by the writing."

Berman's famous shot of Y.A. Tittle on his knees after being sacked by Pittsburgh's John Baker is a picture that, in Hoy's words, was "too good to illustrate the story."

Berman covered most of the Pittsburgh Steelers games during his long career in the city. Every Sunday, he'd take his place along the sidelines and wait to get a sense of the game.

"Some games were excitement from beginning to end," he says. "But this was really a pretty dull game. They were making three or four yards on runs, and I thought, 'Who needs that?'"

He began to wonder how he was going to get a picture worth printing.

"So I started concentrating on Y.A. Tittle," he says. "I thought if I followed somebody at the heart of things, I might be able to get something."

Moments later, Baker broke through the line and slammed into Tittle just as he released a pass. Before he snapped the award winner, he caught the sequence of Baker pounding the quarterback, driving his fist and helmet across Tittle's jaw and lifting him from his feet before stretching him out on the turf. The force of the impact broke several of Tittle's ribs.

Yet Berman didn't stop shooting. He recorded Tittle struggling to his knees. And he kept shooting as the quarterback knelt, alone on the field, gasping for air.

Though the shot's considered one of the century's finest sports images, Berman's own paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, didn't run it.

"The editor asks me, 'What kind of shot is that?'" Berman says. "He's all alone on the field. There's no action."

Hoy says action was all that editors really desired. "They usually didn't want to see anything different. What Morrie got was a poetic statement about a great football player. It's his last game. And it works because someone who didn't know anything about football could understand it."

Berman has more than a couple of copies of the shot in his piles of paper. He also has a copy of a photograph that one of his competitors made of the same scene.

"I think I was luckier that day," Berman says, slipping the two side by side on a paper-strewn tabletop.

The competitor's shot is the same subject, but a very different picture. It includes Tittle's helmet, lying several yards behind him. And instead of catching the quarterback with his head down, the photo has him looking up, as though he's calculating a restaurant tip.

Bradley Wilson, of the National Press Photographer's Association, says the Tittle picture is one of those rare newspaper images that has survived its day.

He says the most powerful American newspaper photograph in the past year was probably Alan Diaz's shot of Elián Gonzalez, the Cuban boat boy, being hustled out of his cousins' Miami house by a ninja-garbed federal marshal.

"We're too close to that image to know whether it will survive the test of time," he says. "But the ones that Morrie took have survived."

The Tittle photograph is one of three that hang on the walls beside the entrance of the NPPA office in Durham, North Carolina. Alongside it are Joe Rosenthal's shot of Iwo Jima and the dramatic photograph of the burning Hindenburg.

Wilson says that these images stand apart from the "art" photography that has come to dominate museums and galleries.

"The Elián Gonzalez photo is a decent example of that," he points out. "When you look at that in a technical sense, it's not a very pretty picture. But it sure is a moment."

Those moments in Berman's photography are much the same. Filled with the rough, sometimes dull edges of passing facts, they appear more prose than poetry. And that's just fine with him.

"I never thought of it as art," says Berman. "I just thought of it as a collection of what I saw."

View a sample of Morris Berman's photos online

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