Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Must see: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs at the Truman Museum

Posted By on Wed, Dec 30, 2009 at 1:05 PM

So it's a time of reflection. Local and national media outlets are thick with year-in-review -- and, this time, decade-in-review -- lists. Mostly, such look-backs provoke a sense of "oh, yeah, that happened" before the feeling quickly passes.

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A much greater emotional and intellectual challenge -- an opportunity for hardcore reflection on the past 60 years -- awaits those who venture out to the Truman Library and Museum to see Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs. Be warned: It takes courage.

Many of these pictures are famous: Joe Rosenthal's 1945 Associated Press image of soldiers raising the American flag at Iwo Jima; Robert H. Jackson's Dallas Times Herald photo of Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald; the horrifying moment on a Saigon street in 1968 when the Associated Press' Edward T. Adams saw Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan hold a gun to the head of a flannel-shirt-wearing Vietcong prisoner and then squeeze the trigger, indelibly recording the facial expression of a man with a bullet ripping through his brain; Charles Porter's firefighter carrying a toddler out of the bombed federal building in Oklahoma City.

Less famous pictures also bring back important memories.

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The Pulitzer committee first awarded a photography prize in 1942. It went to Milton Brooks of The Detroit News for "Ford Strikers Riot." It's the first image visitors see at the bottom of the stairs leading to the museum's lower level: An unidentified man, having done something to provoke striking auto workers outside a Ford Motor Co. plant, hunches over as he's beaten by the crowd; one UAW thug has raised a baseball bat, and his tongue hangs out of his mouth as he anticipates where the bat will land. The tensions that explode in Brooks' photo feel as if they could erupt outside any workplace today.

Other lessons remain unlearned throughout the decades. Whether it's shown in Huynh Cong Ut's agonizing 1973 photo of a naked, napalmed girl running down a country road in Vietnam or

Deanne Fitzmaurice's 2005 San Francisco Chronicle series on an Oakland hospital's efforts to help an Iraqi boy torn apart by an explosion -- or in any one of the images from Angola, Ethiopia, Kosovo or Rwanda -- evidence of man's inhumanity to man is unavoidable and overwhelming.

That makes the exhibition painful -- but it's also essential. As the museum's communications director Susan Medler notes, in addition to being historical, the exhibition stands on its own as art. "It's very moving," she says. "You almost have a physical reaction."

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Occasional moments of relief and redemption come in everyday acts of heroism, such as the lineman who gives mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a nearly electrocuted co-worker in Rocco Morabito's 1967 photograph for the Jacksonville (Florida) Journal.

And then there's the courage displayed by the photographers themselves. Covering the worst New England storm in 200 years, the Boston Herald American's Kevin Cole vomits just as he catches a wave crashing into a lighthouse -- the ocean is so violent that the spray is as tall as the lighthouse itself.

That courage inspires a faint hope that the work of photojournalists might slow down the relentless onslaught of death, destruction and devastation. A Chicago Sun-Times series on "Illinois State Schools for the Retarded" reveals unspeakable conditions in the institutions as recently as July 1970. Describing his work on the project, Jack Dykinga said, "You can't even shoot pictures at first. You're just trying to breathe." Fortunately for the people who were institutionalized, Dykinga started shooting -- and some things changed for the better.

Many of these photographers risked their lives to do this work; for some, the savagery they saw might have contributed to their early deaths. There's only one way to pay sufficient respect. Capture the Moment is up through January 24.

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