A new view on Normandy landings, 70 years on
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Seven decades after Allied Forces reclaimed France from Nazi Germany, the famed American photo editor and journalist John G. Morris has published his own, often unconventional, snapshots of the historic military campaign.
Morris is a living legend in the world of photojournalism, and a look around his bright and spacious loft in Paris reveals not just a long career in the trade, but passion for an art form and a way of life.
Work-desks, a long dinner table and many shelves neatly display hundreds of books and magazines featuring the world’s top photographers. As a one-time picture editor for Life magazine, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and executive editor of Magnum Photos, the 97-year-old has worked with all the greats, and called many of them friends.
One large-format paperback among the columns of books stands out. Its black-and-white stills offer an unconventional, often compassionate view of WWII’s actors and victims, and they were shot by Morris himself.
After 70 years of profiling other people’s photographs, he has finally published his own pictures from the historic offensive to liberate France from its Nazi occupiers.
Shortly after D-Day on June 6, 1944, Morris hung up his hat as Life magazine’s London picture editor and reached for a camera. He hit the beaches of Normandy and began snapping away. With no set assignment, he captured only the moments that interested him during four weeks.
The results are impressive by any standard; the famed picture editor admits the collection is “fairly good”. So why did he limit his picture-taking to this one occasion?
“I have been privileged to work with the great photographers, and if you are walking down the street with [Henri] Cartier-Bresson you don’t aim a camera at the same thing he is shooting,” he recently told FRANCE 24 in an interview at his home.
“I am proud of this book, I love this book,” he confessed. “These pictures are a kind of history that had not been adequately covered.”
‘Welcomed as liberators’
If photographer Robert Capa – Morris’s close friend until his untimely death in 1954 – portrayed the fierceness of the Allied frontline, Morris conversely framed the faces of those left in the wake of their devastating advance.
Scrawny kids, gutted buildings and even German prisoners of war feature prominently in the book’s 168 pages.
“I was well aware of the suffering of the French people. There were perhaps 20,000 French people who died in the battle of Normandy,” Morris lamented. “I was very impressed by the French, that I saw in terms of having had to absorb the shock of liberation -- which was a shock.”
The Allies carried out huge bombing campaigns on D-Day, and indeed throughout the Battle of Normandy, to help infantrymen seize ground from the Germans and hold on to it, sometimes with high human costs among the local population.
“And yet we were welcomed as liberators,” he remembered as his fingers fluttered in search of relevant pages. “The warm response of the French interested me. I photographed an old lady who told me I was the first American that she had ever met.”
He also caught moments the accredited photographers embedded with US troops did not – or could not.
“It was forbidden to show the faces of dead Americans out of courtesy to their families. But I made a picture of a dead man’s hand which I think is good and symbolizes the war,” Morris said. “It’s not that I should feel proud, but too often war is shown simply as moments of courage and triumph, and the grim reality is missing.”
Morris’s work radiates a lot more than just grimness.
He admits that one of his preferred prints shows an African-American GI locking lips with a Frenchwoman.
“They were totally unaware that I was photographing them. I was actually travelling with Bob Landry of Life when I saw this happen and it was the one time I acted fast and got a picture and Landry missed it,” he noted with a chuckle.
Another of his favourites is of a beautiful, stout French refugee holding her child. They posed for him in front of a large portrait of an aristocratic woman in a chateau near the Norman town of Vouilly, which had sustained damage from shell fire. In the picture, the visible scars of war combine with the mother’s poignant stance to capture both the violence and hope brought by the liberation.
Morris says his photographs would have likely remained buried at the bottom of a drawer were it not for the French-British journalist Robert Pledge, who convinced him to mount an exhibition from the photos in southern France last year, and then personally oversaw the entire making of the picture book.
Its publication was timely, as France and the world commemorated the 70th anniversary of D-Day in June and the liberation of Paris this August.
WWII may have helped launch his career, and it has once more become the subject of his work, but Morris takes every opportunity to convince those around him about the ultimate futility of war.
He has been a life-long pacifist and in recent years has repeatedly spoken against the use of drones as part Washington’s continuing war on terrorism.
“War is just intolerable,” he said. “I keep wondering when mankind is going to grow up and abolish war.”