“Photography is more than art. In photojournalism, it’s knowledge.” – Ralph Morse
Ralph Theodore Morse was a career staff photographer for Life magazine. He was born in Manhattan in 1917 and raised in the Bronx area of New York City.
He lived with his mother and sister in an apartment where the income was $25 a week. At fifteen, he starting working in a drug store delivering orders every afternoon, and at a soda fountain every evening until 11:00 pm, making soda and sandwiches for the public. At DeWitt Clinton High School, he joined the school newspaper and was a dedicated student of journalism.
Aspiring to become a newsreel cameraman but lacking the requisite $1,000 to join the union, Morse entered the City College of New York for free and took every class offered in photography. Her then looked up photography in the business directory and starting with “A”, he went door-to-door visiting all the listings until finally being hired at “P” by Paul Parker Studio.
Paul Parker was a social photographer with such customers as the United Fund and the Red Cross, a type of photography of great interest to Morse. Paul Parker had a most fascinating capability of moving lights. Morse stayed with Parker for most of the year until hearing of a job of hanging lights for George Karger, a German banker turned photographer who was freelancing through Pix Publishing. An agency in New York that sold pictures around the world. Earning $6 a week, Morse worked with Karger for six months, at which time Morse realized that he had learned all that Karger had to offer. Then a job opened at Harper’s Bazaar. Morse only stayed at Harper’s for a day, as he could not understand taking pictures that meant nothing to anyone outside the fashion industry.
As one who delivered photos to Pix on a daily basis, Morse was readily hired by Pix to work in their darkroom. The first weekend as a printer, Morse spent a day with friends at Jones Beach on Long Island. Not owning a camera, Morse borrowed a 35mm Contax from his friend Cornell Capa, who was also a printer in the Pix publishing lab, as well as the brother of Life photographer Robert Capa. At the beach, Morse happened upon a father throwing his baby into the air and catching him. Capturing the father and son on film, Morse immediately brought the pictures to Leon Daniel, the editor of Pix. Daniel proclaimed that Pix could sell the picture that very afternoon. Within an hour, Daniel had sold the photo to the Houston Chronicle and then sold it to about twenty other publications in the world over the following week. He continued working in the darkroom and continued taking pictures every weekend.
Morse credits Leon Daniel as being the person who definitively encouraged him to become a professional photographer, as it was Daniel who urged him to take pictures and let Pix sell them, noting that such an arrangement would be more lucrative both experientially and financially. Morse bought himself his first camera equipment and began buying The New York Times every day in order to select events to photograph, creating pictures which Daniel then sold instantly.
Alfred Eisenstaedt, a Pix silent partner and photographer left the Associated Press in Germany to join the new Life magazine staff in New York City. Eisenstaedt closely observed Morse’s photographing while encouraging Wilson Hicks, the picture editor of Life, to meet the young upstart at Pix. After weeks of Eisenstaedt’s nagging, Hicks relented and asked to meet Morse. At their initial encounter, Hicks gave Morse his first assignment. Not at all sure how he would actually meet the demands of the most important picture editor in the United States, Morse covered up his fear with gratitude. Between his own and Capa’s equipment, Morse was able to cover the author Thornton Wilder’s acting on Broadway in his own show Our Town. The success of this assignment earned him a second job capturing on film women buying hats for their husbands in the basement of Gimbels department store. This turned out to be Morse’s first photo story published by Life. As a result, Hicks offered Morse a contract to work for Life one day a week through Pix, which amounted to about ten days a month of working for Life until the start of World War II.
At 24, Morse was the youngest war correspondent when Life hired him full-time in 1942 and sent him to the Pacific Theatre of World War II. He immediately learned that not all of his photos would end up in print, as his first war assignment turned out to be a secret mission. War coverage was the ultimate on-the-job training, needing to learn on the spot such feats as descending rope ladders overloaded with both combat and photographic gear in order to accompany troops from ship to shore. Landing with the Marines on Guadalcanal, Morse’s cameras recorded America’s first amphibious attack in the Pacific. He arranged for the captain of the USS Vincennes (CA-44), the Navy ship on which Morse had arrived, to deliver his film to Washington, D.C., as such pictures needed to be screened before being printed. Unfortunately, the Vincennes was torpedoed that night in the Battle of Savo Island.
Morse’s film and equipment went down with the ship while he trod water all night amidst destroyers dropping depth charges on submarines, fortunately scaring away the sharks and barracuda. With neither cameras nor clothing, Morse made a secret pact with Naval command to return briefly to Life in New York to re-equip, but was mandated to tell no details of the sea battle, no explanation of how he lost his equipment. Unknown to him, he was being trailed by Naval intelligence to confirm that he had kept his word. Guadalcanal grew a jungle so thick that accompanying nocturnal troop movement was filled with the risk of abandonment if one ever lost sight of the soldier’s foot he was following. During a daytime patrol, Morse came upon a burnt-out Japanese tank in a clearing with a skull and helmet on the fender.
Life magazine and newspapers around the country ran Morse’s photo; it proved to be the first horror picture released by the censors of World War II. Morse left the Pacific with not just an accommodation for his photo coverage from the United States Secretary of the Navy, but also with a case of malaria. Upon being healed in a New York City hospital, he was reassigned to photograph General George Patton’s Army’s traversing France.
He did a most comprehensive story of a wounded soldier by braving a request to the Surgeon General of the Army to certify him as wounded as well, so that he would become privy to all means of transportations, first aid stations, and hospitals as was his wounded man. Searching the battlefield between artillery shellings, he observed a corpsman as both arms were hit. Morse was witness to all the surgeries, fed him his meals, and, in time, poured penicillin into his wounds. The photos of this soldier in pain and his arms being placed in casts, considered a model of effective photojournalism, are the commonly used pictures of the wounded of World War II.
Morse was witness to the invasion at Normandy, air raids in Verdun, General Charles de Gaulle’s peace parade in Paris, and Hermann Göring’s trial at Nuremberg. He accompanied a Frenchman by open rail and hitched rides all the way from the German concentration camp where he had been enslaved back to the dinner table with the family members from whom he had been estranged for four years. He was the civilian photojournalist present at the signing of the surrender by the Germans at Reims.
A decade after photographing the post-war reconstruction of Europe, Morse received his next singular assignment: documenting American preparations to explore outer space. He spoke to the science and managing editors of Life, recommending that one reporter and one photographer go everywhere and do everything in which the astronauts were engaged. The editors chose Morse for the job, launching a thirty-year assignment and lifelong friendships between Morse and the astronauts and their families. After years of joining the astronauts as they trained flying weightless, diving undersea, studying rocks, surviving deserts and jungles, Morse was dubbed by Mercury astronaut John Glenn as the eighth astronaut.
Conventional photography was sufficient at the onset of Morse’s coverage of the space program which began as an introduction to Life readers of the astronauts themselves and their families; however, as the program grew in complexity from Project Mercury to Gemini to Apollo, Morse needed to devise new ways to capture subject matter never before photographed. He illustrated subjects that no-one had ever seen. He did his homework, gathering the necessary knowledge to make the desired photograph. He invented his own techniques for images such as a rocket launch. He photographed double exposures, he shot with infrared cameras, he relied on motion detectors. Because he photographed with remote camera, the results were dramatic as the cameras were so close to the rockets. He positioned a six-foot man next to a thirty-seven-story missile to show its scale.
Morse believed that photos lend a unique understanding to the world in which we live. Photographer Jim McNitt, who worked with Morse on several Time magazine assignments in the 1970s, described him as a fun-loving extrovert who was delighted to mentor an aspiring photojournalist. “Watching Ralph plan his shots, respond to editors, and deal with reluctant subjects with off-hand humour taught me things I couldn’t learn in photo magazines or workshops,” said McNitt. Former Life managing editor George P. Hunt proclaimed of Morse, “If Life could afford only one photographer, it would have to be Ralph Morse.”
What truly inspires me about Morse photography life story is that he dedicated his life to telling stories of others. He even went as far immersing himself into the subject story to better tell the story. Although, he did not go the conventional way, he took every opportunity that was handed and went beyond expectations. He was not afraid of trying new techniques either.