PARIS — A short walk from the square where the Bastille prison once stood, at the end of a long cobblestone driveway, more than 80 people, mainly Americans, packed John G. Morris’ high-ceilinged living room.
For 17 months during the U.S. presidential campaign, Morris transformed his home, a former factory turned into a loft, into a nerve center of activity to elect Barack Obama.
Part cheerleader, part elder statesman to the large community of Democrats in Paris, this white-haired journalist opened the meeting by telling the energetic crowd that he has lived under 16 presidents; that his grandfather was a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln; and that his great-grandfather owned a slave.
To drive home the urgency of his cause, Morris joked that he “would be happy to drop dead …” but his words trailed off and were drowned out by raucous boos. Then he rebounded quickly, saying he wanted to live long enough to go “dancing at the inaugural ball of Barack Obama. I haven’t done that since John F. Kennedy.”
Morris is, by some estimates, one of the world's most experienced photo editors. During a career that spanned five decades, he played a key behind-the-scenes role at Life, National Geographic and The New York Times. He worked (and partied) with such luminaries as Ernest Hemingway and Henri Cartier-Bresson.
Morris says he was “tremendously impressed” after reading Obama’s books. He opened his home for monthly “meet-ups,” creating a sanctuary for expatriates eager to contribute to the grassroots organizing momentum back in the United States. In the heat of the primaries, he used a 1944 press pass to gain access to a July joint press conference with Obama and French President Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee Palace. His efforts culminated in a victory party at his apartment for more than 300 people following Obama’s historic win. Months later, he still can’t bring himself to discard the life-sized cardboard cutout of Obama in his living room.
His greatest wish is that Obama’s administration “will cease to impose so-called military solutions on places like Afghanistan” and end the war in Iraq.
“I hope that this administration will lead the world to peace and disarmament,” Morris said in an interview, a few days short of his 92nd birthday. Photographs of nuclear bomb victims lay strewn about his study. He was preparing to give a speech in London about the ravages of war and the work of Robert Capa, the intrepid photographer. “The world can no longer afford war on any level,”
A conscientious objector since before World War II, Morris was touched deeply and personally by the havoc of 20th-century violence. He first set foot in Paris as a war correspondent, five days after the city’s liberation from years of German occupation during World War II.
By that time, he had helped to bring to light some of the most memorable images of the war. Just three months before, it was Morris who ushered past the censors Capa’s 11 frames of film capturing the D-Day beach landing at Normandy, then drove frantically through the streets of London, to make sure the slightly out of focus shots could be couriered to New York to meet the magazine’s deadline.
For 14 years Morris worked on and off with Capa chronicling the tumultuous history of the mid-20th century. A friendship flourished between the men, until Capa was killed in 1954 after stepping on a landmine while covering the French campaign in Indochina.
“Pictures and politics are closely related,” Morris wrote in his autobiography, "Get The Picture." At The New York Times, he recalls behind-the-scenes discussions on how to play the point-blank execution of a Vietcong suspect by the head of the country’s national police. Then there was AP photographer Nick Ut’s searing image of a 9-year-old Vietnamese girl running down the road after being burned in a napalm attack, which the paper published below the fold because of her nudity. His bosses at the paper were relieved, Morris said, that the girl was too young to have pubic hair.
He remembers scrambling for archived images of Martin Luther King Jr. the day the civil rights leader was assassinated. “We weren’t prepared for that at all.” Morris chose the portrait of a pensive King to illustrate one of several tributes the paper ran.
Two months later, Morris dictated by phone an on-the-scene account of the assassination of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy for a page-one scene-setting story, his first and only bylined article. Hearing the gun shots, he thought they were balloons popping. “I reported his last words: ‘On to Chicago …’” Morris said.
But “this was the most crucial election of my lifetime,” he said of the 2008 race. “I have hope for America now where I was in despair months ago.”
Obama's election is already a step in the right direction for Morris, who has lived in Paris since 1983 and considers the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago, where he grew up, to be home.
Whether or not he’ll be dancing at the ball, Morris plans to be in Washington on Jan. 20. In this case, images, though a constant accompaniment to his life, just won’t do. This is one moment in history he wants to see first-hand.
“I’m going to the inauguration with about 4 million people,” Morris said. “I just want to be there in the same place, at the same time.”