Most people’s memories remain inside their heads or within the pages of family photo albums. But 51 years of Morris Berman’s memories are now framed and hung on the walls of a West Valley museum.
The faces of John F. Kennedy, Harry Truman, World War II soldiers, The Beatles, Eleanor Roosevelt, Muhammad Ali, Mother Teresa and Jonah Salk are among the images Berman captured on film during his 51-year photographic career.
Berman, a youthful 91, was a combat photographer for the United States Army during World War II and a photographer with the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette from 1937-1979.
An exhibit of the Sun City resident’s work, titled “In Our Time: Photographs of Peace and War,” is on display through Feb. 18 at the West Valley Art Museum, 17420 N. Avenue of the Arts in Surprise.
The exhibit spans Berman’s career, with more than 160 photographs from World War II, well-known sports figures, United States presidents and everyday life.
Berman started as a reporter in 1928 at the Wheeling Daily News in Wheeling, W. Va., earning $15 per week, and soon became a telegraph editor, which is similar to a news editor. Since the newspaper didn’t have a photography department, he bought a small camera and took photos to accompany his feature stories. Soon, other reporters asked him to take photos for their stories.
After nine years at the paper, he moved to Pittsburgh to begin what he thought was a job as a reporter at the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph.
When he reported for work, he was surprised to find out that he had actually been hired as a news photographer.
“I didn’t know anything about a speed graphic,” Berman says, referring to the dominant portable professional camera from the 1930s through the end of the 1950s. The camera would allow only one shot to be taken at a time.
“When (Franklin Delano) Roosevelt was in Pittsburgh, we (were able to shoot enough film for) 12 holders with 24 pictures of the president of the United States. Today they (would use) about 12 rolls (of film). That shows how things have changed,” he says.
Assignments from his years at the newspaper, which was bought out by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 1960, include celebrities, sports events and hundreds of local stories.
“It was up to me to shoot whatever was interesting,” he says.
His photographs not only captured the essence of stories, they also sometimes advocated action.
For instance, when an orphanage needed diapers, his photo of a toddler standing in a crib without a diaper provoked such a large donation of diapers, the paper had to run an article saying that no more were needed.
Once, Berman and a reporter were covering a story about a brand new housing development that hadn’t yet provided its new residents with water.
When Berman asked one of the residents how they take their baths, he was told that they walk half a mile to a pump to get water, reheat it and then bathe in a metal tub.
Berman asked the man if he would take his clothes off and pretend to bathe in the tub for a photograph.
The man complied, and the residents got their water.
Berman’s most famous photograph was one of New York Giants’ quarterback Y.A. Tittle,
Berman won several awards for this photograph of Y.A. Tittle.
Photo by Morris Berman
for which he won several awards, including first place in the sports category from the National Press Photographers Association in 1965.
His editor chose not to print it because there weren’t any other players in the shot; Berman entered it into contests on his own.
In 1942, at age 33 and married seven years to his wife, Ruth, Berman was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he was assigned as a combat photographer.
On duty in Africa and then Italy, Berman shot color transparencies, which were picked up by diplomatic pouches, shipped back to the Pentagon, sent to the Eastman Kodak company for processing and then back to the Pentagon for screening and distribution to magazines and newspapers using color.
World War II was the first war filmed in color. Many of his photographs were used in National Geographic, Pageant magazine, Popular Photography and several others.
His mission, planned to last just 90 days, stretched to three years.
“I roamed around the different outfits in combat with a driver and a jeep loaded with camera gear. It was a great way to see beautiful Italy if you didn’t mind the enemy throwing shells your way,” Berman said in a press release about the exhibit.
American soldiers, dead German soldiers, German prisoners, equipment, explosions and destruction of World War II are among the images captured in Berman’s photographs.
“Everything that happened that I took a picture of is etched in my brain,” he says.
During the war, he also took pictures of celebrities such as movie star Marlene Dietrich entertaining the troops, King George VI of England and Pope Pius XII.
In 1945, on the outskirts of Milan, Berman photographed the Italians celebrating the downfall of Benito Mussolini. An old American woman climbed into the back of his jeep and directed the driver to the pavilion where bodies were hanging from the marquee of an unfinished gas station.
Some bodies had been cut down.
“Mussolini and his mistress were laying on the ground,” Berman recalled in a press release. “They had beaten him, put bullets in his dead body and spit on him. One of the partisans had pushed them together, placed their arms together and the undertaker rushed up and placed tags on their bodies. On it read ‘Mussolini, Benito.’ On her tag she was merely listed as ‘Petacci.’ It was a sight I shall never forget.”
He was awarded a Bronze star for his work.
In late 1945, Berman returned to his wife and the Pittsburgh Sun Telegraph.
“It was good to be back … covering the usual fires, murders, sports, check passings, trophy passings and just plain head shots,” he says.
Berman retired from the newspaper business in 1979 and moved to Sun City, where he does free-lance photography. His first wife died 10 years ago, and three years ago he married artist Diana Tollefson Berman.
Berman says that he still always carries his camera with him and takes pictures for friends or for events at Temple Beth Shalom and Jewish Community Center of the Northwest Valley in Sun City, where he and his wife are members.
For the past 20 years, Berman has visited a professor friend’s photojournalism class at Arizona State University, where he gives a slide show presentation to the students.
The exhibit includes Berman’s comments and World War II memorabilia. Berman will conduct a slide show lecture about his photographs 2:30 p.m. Friday, Jan. 26, at the museum.
This article first appeared in the Dec. 22, 2000 issue of Jewish News of Greater Phoenix.