Shooting Star

A photographic negative of dead Italian fascist Benito Mussolini and his mistress, Clarette Petacci, isn't something you'd expect to find in the laundry room of a Sun City home.

But as Morris Berman holds the blackish 4-by-5-inch transparency up to the ceiling light in a room stuffed with papers, a washer and a dryer, the duo appears against the cool overhead brightness in the all-too-mortal still life that Berman caught with his camera 55 years ago.

Face up, side by side, their arms are linked, their bodies battered. An undertaker's tags are pinned to their blood-stained clothes. Mussolini's beaten face has been smeared to look more pig than person -- the parting handiwork of vengeful Italian partisan fighters who killed the two and brought them to Milan for public display in the waning days of World War II.

Berman, who is 91, shot the picture in Milan in 1945 as a photographer for the United States Army Signal Corps. For him, the disturbing image is a mix of memory and film. Yet his memory has proved to be the more durable of the two.

"This used to be a color negative," he says, nodding at the film. "It was Ektachrome, I think. You can see that that's all faded away now; it's turned to black and white."

Faded or not, the negative holds an essential 20th-century moment. One whose facts and sense of truth seem all the more compelling, given the malleable digital photographs of our own time.

The image hasn't been manipulated to create a more sinister appearance. It hasn't been cropped or rearranged as so many advertisements and photo illustrations of modern news events are. It simply reflects the facts that Berman himself saw -- and thought the rest of the world should see, too.

This directness may partly explain why Berman's photograph of Mussolini and about 150 others from his 50-year career as a photojournalist have been drawing a steady stream of viewers to the West Valley Art Museum in Sun City.

Since it opened there two months ago, the exhibition, "In Our Time: Photographs of Peace and War," has nudged the photographer out of the relative obscurity of retirement and put him on a treadmill of museum appearances and talks.

"My God, they're working me," Berman says with fatigued, if slightly baffled, satisfaction. "I never thought people would have been interested in these pictures, or that these things would mean that much to anyone else."

But he apparently underestimated.

His November slide talk at the museum drew more than 500 people. He plans to do another one this month for fellow members of the Ex-Press Club, a Valley group of retired journalists and press agents. And a third public lecture, featuring his stories behind the pictures, promises to fill the museum again January 26.

The "old news" theme of the show, the subjects of which range from war, presidents, celebrities and world leaders to sporting events, crime scenes and calamities, undoubtedly stirs the time-capsule tastes of Sun City citizens. But nostalgia isn't the only attraction of Berman's work.

For the younger crowd, says Donald Gray, the museum's curator, Berman's shots, particularly those of World War II, go a long way toward filling in the stories they've heard from parents and grandparents.

"I think what people are finding in Morrie's pictures," says Gray, "is they have some poetry and content to them, and they really resonate with feeling you don't often see in these kinds of pictures."

Berman's career as a newspaper photographer spanned more than half a century, from 1928 to 1979. Except for his wartime stint in the Signal Corps, he spent most of that time shooting for the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph, which eventually merged into the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

It was an era that saw the birth and dramatic rise of the visual culture that now rules electronic and print media. Pictures replaced words as the primary vehicle of fact. They made the anonymous notable and transformed celebrities into icons of a new kind of intimacy, or at least the illusion of it.

Mid-century picture magazines such as Life and Look were among the most prominent players in this shift. They gave their photographers the luxury of time and plentiful materials to compose photographic essays packed with sentiment and high visual drama. The postwar picture spreads made minor stars of photographers like Margaret Bourke-White, W. Eugene Smith, George Rodger and a handful of others.

Occasionally, newspapers would produce a photographer like Weegee, who was as adept at self-promotion as he was at covering New York gangland killings.

However, the relative anonymity of Berman's career was more the rule among newspaper photo hounds, whose pictures often appeared without a credit.

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Edward Lebow
Contact: Edward Lebow