Written by Peter Turnley
John Morris. Photo by Peter Turnley.
This morning I received a phone call in Cuba from my brother David in Paris to tell me that John Morris had just passed today. I went to see John just a few weeks ago on a Saturday afternoon. As I walked into his room in the residence where he was staying, John lay, part asleep. I didn't want to bother him, but needed to see him, and whispered into his ear, "John, I love you." He responded clearly, "Peter I love you too." These were our last words, but the most important to me. John was not only my friend for the past 45 years, but truly a father to me and David.
One day a few years ago, as I sat eating dinner alone with him, I asked John, as possibly only a lifelong friend could ask, "John, what would you like me to say about you when you are gone?" John looked at me, and gently responded, with a smile: "I tried." He not only tried, but succeeded in touching the hearts of most everyone he met, and his story, and his passion and care for the world and for life, and his ability to love life, and to be in love, will be an example that anyone that knew him will carry with them forever.
John's life story was the story of our world and of photography over the past 100 years. The names of the great photographers of the world, Capa, Cartier-Bresson, W. Eugene Smith, and on and on, were his family. I was very fortunate to be part of his family since first meeting him with my brother David when he first saw our McClellan Street photographs when we were 17 years old.
John's interest in success was not status, and no one felt more compassion for the left behind than John. His passion was in living life with love, doing the best one can, and fighting for a world where peace, care, decency, generosity, and honesty prevail—and his passion for public service was greater than anyone I've ever known. My relationship with John was not professional; he was my friend, and like a father to me. But he was demanding, and expected greatness—for him, there was nothing more natural. Every conversation was sprinkled with comments about Capa, Chim, Henri, and on and on, and these were not names on a pedestal, but lives of friends with feelings, stories, ups and downs, and heart. To achieve anything great in life, one must dream. Being around John always made dreams easy, because his life, like a dream, was reality.
Whenever I would return from some place where my heart had been scarred, Somalia, Rwanda, Chechnya, Bosnia, Kosovo, Irak, and on and on, the realities I had felt and witnessed were not, for John, something from a television set. They were part of his life blood and fabric and what he cared and lived for—trying to always somehow impact the world for the better. He also was extremely engaged politically, in a human sense. As we go forward, it won't be awards, or honors, or accolades that John will appreciate us for. It will be simply a kind and loving gaze upon our life with the question, did you do your best, did you try, did you try to make the world a better place? And have you loved. And when the answer to any of those questions will be a yes—John will raise his glass with a smile, and you will feel that as always, you are part of his amazing family of life.
John and Peter. Photo by Jan Kwarnmark.
I love you John. You are not gone, you will always be with me, and with us.
July 28, 2017
[Ed. Note: There is a full obituary of John Morris by the critic and curator Andy Grundberg in the New York Times. Our thanks to Peter for sharing his very personal thoughts.]
©2017 by Peter Turnley, all rights reserved
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(To see all the comments, click on the "Comments" link below.)
Featured Comments from:
Jim Metzger: "Beautiful."
Steve Rosenblum: "Five years ago I had the great privilege to participate in Peter's Paris Street Photography workshop. The highlight of the whole week for me was an evening when Peter arranged for all of us to go to John Morris's apartment where he (at 95 years of age) stood for an hour and gave us a lecture about the history of documentary photography over the last 70 years and his involvement in it. He told us the intimate stories behind many of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century, the people who made them, and the struggle to get them published. Then we all went out for dinner together.
"My wife and I agree that it was one of the most amazing experiences of our lives. We will always be grateful to John for sharing his vast life experience with us and to Peter for arranging it."
David Elesh: "Like Steve Rosenblum, I met John and his partner, Patricia, at Peter's Paris Street Photography Workshop in 2011. My wife and I were amazed by John's stories, vitality, and engagement with the present at 95. He spoke of his history, his current political activities, and his gratitude of finding a loving partner in Patricia Trocmé. As Peter writes so aptly, 'his passion and care for the world and for life, and his ability to love life, and to be in love' were fully on display.
"The New York Times has a five minute interview with John on its website recorded in 2006. There are also several photos of John taken at various points in his career. They are worth your time as his autobiography, Get the Picture."
Jan Kwarnmark: "Thank you, Peter, for these words. From our workshop and meeting with John in September 2013 I remember especially that John, after having seen so many war photos, wanted to be an ambassador for peace. And thank you for using my photo, taken with your Leica, at this precious moment."
[Ed. note: Jan's work was featured once before in these pages, as readers might remember.]