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.

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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.

Short deadlines forced them to make their rough first visual renderings of history on the run, often clicking off no more than one or two pictures of each source before hustling on to the next assignment.

"My God, we covered all kinds of things," Berman says. "Car wrecks, fires, crime scenes. I hated sitting around the office, waiting for stories, so I was always looking for the next thing to do."

Armed with a two-way radio and a car loaded with camera gear, he roamed wherever news was happening in the city.

Unlike many photographers with lifelong newspaper careers, Berman never left the beat.

Right up to his retirement, he continued shooting the famous and the infamous, and covered just about all of Pittsburgh's sports teams.

His sports coverage yielded his most widely recognized and acclaimed shot. Named one of the century's 100 best sports photographs by Sports Illustrated, it shows New York Giants quarterback Y.A. Tittle on his knees after being sacked by a Pittsburgh Steelers defender in a 1964 game. At the end of an illustrious career, alone on the field, his helmet off, blood trickling from his temple, Tittle is the modern image of the fallen Greek hero.

Yet Berman managed to make some equally poignant images of more anonymous moments and people. And many of those raise quiet existential questions that go to the heart of what photography does best.

"No other medium can pay tribute to an object or person as faithfully as a photograph," says Bill Jay, former associate professor of photography history at Arizona State University.

And no tool freezes that object and person in time more chillingly than a camera.

Looking at the frozen anonymity in Berman's photos, one can't help but wonder: What ever happened to the mother who's wailing at the burial of a child hit by a truck? Or the stunned family huddled beside the smoldering ruin of their Pittsburgh home? Or the little girl who threw down her crutches to take a silver bullet from the hand of the Lone Ranger?

But Berman isn't prone to that kind of reflection. He has a caption knowledge of the events that brought the people in front of his lens. And he doesn't dwell on the happenstance events he recorded on film.

For years, in fact, he kept the pictures tucked away in fat scrapbooks, a few framed and hung on the walls of his house.

Occasionally, he says, he's wondered whether any of the work measured up. It's a question that the exhibition has answered in its own way.

"The kinds of things people have said to me," he muses, "you'd almost think I was some kind of hero. But really I don't know why they make a big fuss out of these pictures. It was a job, that's all. I tried to get the best picture I could."

Walking through the West Valley Art Museum in a red Windbreaker imprinted with "Phoenix Open," Berman looks every bit the golf retiree who zips from one clubhouse meeting to another. But then he swings a Nikon FA camera from under his arm into his hand and puts it gently on a nearby table.

"He's always shooting," says Frank Hoy, a friend of Berman's and associate professor of photojournalism at Arizona State University. "He's really a legend in news photography. A lot of photographers just covered their assignments and went home. But Morrie has stayed involved."

A handsome man with broad, smiling features and a full head of wavy gray hair, Berman says that he and his first wife, Ruth, who died in 1990, moved from Pittsburgh to Sun City in 1979 to be near one of his brothers.

But not necessarily to quit working. For a while, he freelanced for the Sun City paper and the Arizona Republic. And he's been a presence at ASU, giving annual talks to journalism students for the past 20 years.

Hoy says that Berman recently donated $5,000 to fund two work stations for digital photography at the journalism school.

Electronic darkrooms are a world away from the bare-bones closets and glass negatives that Berman began with in the 1920s. But he's a realist about the changes in the medium.

"I know this is the way things are going," he says. "Pretty soon, most of the photographers will be using computers and digital things. I always tell them that these fancy things don't change the fact that someone still has to stand behind the camera. Someone still has to make the shot."

Berman didn't set out to be a news photographer. The son of Jewish immigrants from Bucharest, he grew up with two brothers and a sister in Wheeling, West Virginia, a steel town tucked into the rolling hills along the Ohio River.

Though he spent his life chasing facts, he began it with a dose of fiction.

"When I was born," Berman says, "the doctor asked my mother what name they should put on me." Her accent was so strong that when she said "Morris," the doctor heard and wrote down "Wallace."

Years later, as a reporter, Berman found in the county clerk's files that he'd been living under an assumed name. But it's the one he preferred.

"I always hated that name 'Wallace.'"

As a high school student in the 1920s, Berman excelled at basketball and received several scholarship offers to play college ball after his 1926 graduation from high school. But his family's poverty forced him to set the offers aside.

"My father was a shoemaker," says Berman. "He made them by hand. The problem was that machine production of shoes had pretty much taken over here. So he was always struggling.

"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."

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-Register didn'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.

"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.

"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."

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."

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.

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."

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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