“If LIFE could afford only one photographer, it would have to be
--Life’s ex-managing editor, George Hunt
Ralph Morse cannot remember when he did not want to be a photographer.
He devoured all photography courses offered at City College in New York. He
obtained his first job in the photo field by taking the Yellow Pages of the New
York phone book, starting at A. He was hired at P. By 1938, when he was 21, he
was working on assignments for LIFE Magazine. He joined the photographic
staff in 1942. As a combat photographer, Morse covered the initial landing on
Guadalcanal and General Doolittle’s Tokyo raid. He was aboard the heavy
cruiser Vincennes when it was sunk during the battle of Savo Island; he floated
for six and a half hours until help came.
Morse’s name in photography is synonymous with solving technical
photographic problems. A great technical experimenter, he claims to specialize
in nothing – “only pictures.” His thirty years on LIFE
Magazine covered every type of assignment from science to theatre, and he was
the senior staff photographer at its demise.
He has been a successful improviser and master of multiple exposures.
Said former LIFE managing editor George Hunt: “If equipment he
needed didn’t exist he built it.”
Encyclopedias and history books abound with his coverage of World War II,
the marines at Guadalcanal, the Doolittle Raid in Tokyo, Patton’s drive
across France, and was the only civilian photographer covering for the entire
world the surrender of the German armies to General Eisenhower. Assigned to the
Space Program, he spent 15 years using inventive photography to explain the
astronauts and the space flights to LIFE’s readers.
Morse began covering the space program in 1958. By 1962, his
technical expertise was so well known around Cape Canaveral that he was one of
the first two journalists allowed in a capsule for a 12-hour simulated moon
flight. With the cooperation of NASA, he has mounted cameras on rocket tails,
gantries, umbilical towers and splash shields. Some of his cameras have had
unplanned launchings, others have been smashed or incinerated, but he maintains
that the potential shots were worth the risk.
For his coverage of the various astronaut programs, Morse made it his
business to get to know well all the pilots, their wives and their children. He
fished, sailed and water-skied with his subjects and developed a genuine
closeness to them. He all but became a member of this select group of pilots,
and their jokes about his persistence and his enthusiasm were expressions of
their real admiration for him.
If you ask the fast-talking, alert and energetic Morse which
assignment he has found most interesting, he says, “I guess you might say
I get most excited about whatever job I’m working on.” He is
currently a contract photographer for TIME Magazine.