Pulitzer Prize Photographs
by Julianne Newton
If you pause to ponder the visual and verbal content of this book, giving it the time it deserves, you will never view history or photojournalism the same way again.
But to get the full effect, you must read the book five times. The first time, simply look at the pictures — as if one can simply look at pictures such as these. But try; look into them, do not read nearby words as you look, just see into the time feelings held in the photos. Suspend as well as you can any judgments you might have about the photos or what they portray. Give the content its due.
The second time, read the words — the introductory material as well as the individual vignettes describing the contexts in which the pictures were made.
On your third reading, walk along the visual timeline, a path of additional pictures, words and dates that will help you locate the prize-winning photos in history.
Next, work back through the book, from start to finish, pausing on each photo or group of photos to soak up bits of the lives within the frames. Finally, on the fifth read, think critically as you scan the volume. Think about the content of the pictures, about the thrust of the timeline, about photojournalism, about societal rewards for public work, about how we decide what to remember from our history.
Excessive, you are thinking.
How many times have you re-read a poem or studied a painting, waiting for the work to open to you a little more eachtime, I ask. But this is not poetry or art, you are thinking. This is journalism. Depending on your opinion of journalism, you may inherently respect or disregard images of photojournalism. You cite examples of photographs that have been manipulated, that mislead, that tell only part of a truth, that were published primarily because of color or aesthetic appeal. The fact that the best images of photojournalism increasingly find their way onto the walls of art galleries does little to convince you of their worth, much less their authenticity.
I suggest that you approach these photographs from a perspective outside the frames of your past perceptions ofjournalism and art. The photographs in the 1999 edition of Moments: The Pulitzer Prize-Winning Photographs, deserve farmore of your consideration than a quick dismissal based on the rationales of subjective perception and media manipulation. Subtitled A Visual Chronicle of Our Time, these words and pictures tell significant stories, both as individual units and as a whole. They define the essential moments of the last half of the zoth century — or do they? At the very least, they define the vision photographers, editors and each year's Pulitzer Prize committee decided was important. And that very vision has framed the way we have viewed and remember events of the 20TH century. That alone makes them worthy of thoughtful reading.
But there is far more to learn from sitting a while with this book. Compiled by a master editor of 20th century photo-journalism, Moments provides remarkable fodder for discussing the significant issues of vision and reality facing the global citizenry in the iist century: How does photojournalism influence our understanding of world events? How doesphotojournalism affect what we remember about those events? Should these photographs have been taken or published? Had they not been taken or published, would history be different? What factors determine whether we are drawn to a picture or remember it at all? What will the revised Moments published in the year 2100 contain? Little of consequence because we can no longer believe photographs? Or a compendium of images chronicling the iist century with the dedication and integrity made clear by this current volume?
The book is well done: quality reproductions in both black and white and color, quickly readable vignettes about the photos and photographers, careful design to give the best pictures their due, clean use of type and white space. One particularly interesting characteristic is that no captions accompany the photographs. At first, I found the idea refreshing; the viewer must look at the photos more carefully to discern their narratives. The pictures must stand on their own. Many times I have been annoyed by the draw of words next to an incredible image, even the tiny titles posted next to works exhibited inmuseums. The habit of turning quickly to caption material led me to be similarly annoyed when my eye moved quickly to the bold-faced technical information located near each major photo. For clarification and background, text that is much fuller than a caption describes how the photos came about.
Written and compiled by veteran Associated Press executive Hal Buell, we can trust the validity of the material. The foreword by Seymour Topping, who administers the Pulitzer Prizes and is professor of international journalism at Columbia University, offers a brief but informative background on the Pulitzers' beginning, as well as on their subsequent development and the selection process. Buell's introduction takes on the difficult question, "What is it that makes a Pulitzer Prize picture?" The Pulitzer requirements are straightforward: "The photo, or photos, must have been published in a daily newspaper in the United States, and must have been made in the calendar year prior to the year of the award." Buell notes, however, that the rules "offer no guidance about picture content, historical significance, technical skill, journalistic experience, or cultural impact." The pictures vary from the horrors of war to tender exchange between people, from surprising historical events to the quiet reflection of everyday life, from high drama to subtle glances, from the vision of seasoned photojournalists to that of an amateur passerby. Buell writes.
In light of this diversity of images, one must say that the Pulitzer-winning photos by and large document universal moments in the passage of time that take us to places we otherwise might not have seen. Frequently they are the chapter headings of history. Too often they are pictures of violence, because history is more likely to be written in blood than beauty. But the Pulitzer catalogue also includes pictures of those delicious moments that each of us encounters individually, those sweet, gentle insights that separate us from the routine of our lives. Shared through photography these pictures also become universal.
Buell divides the book into four insightful, self-explanatory sections: The Large-Format Camera and the Early Pulitzers; The Small Camera and the Vietnam and Civil Rights Pulitzers; A New Kind of Pulitzer: The Picture Story; and Color and Digital Photography, Women Photographers and the Africa Pulitzers. These categories alone provide a means for analyzing the course of photojournalism in the ioth century.
Here's how it works. Eddie Adams, an experienced photojournalist, walks around Saigon, camera gear in tow, living the dangerous life of a war photographer in order to cover Vietnam. Alerted by gunfire, Adams encounters Vietnamese soldiers escorting a prisoner and takes a few pictures. With his camera to his eye, Adams sees a man walk into view and pull put a pistol. The gun fires, a bullet enters a man's skull, Adams' finger pushes the shutter. An unbelievable moment is documented, a moment few would have witnessed were it not for the process of photography and Adams' courage and talent. The photograph is published worldwide, showing its viewers a side of the war in Vietnam they did not want to believe, much less see. They react with individual and mass responses: horror, disgust, disbelief, denial, voyeuristic compulsion. The photograph is awarded the Pulitzer Prize for News Photography. The moment as captured becomes one of a handful of pictures that define public memory about the War in Vietnam. Most of those who lived through the Vietnam War can readily call the picture to mind. The moment is one moment, as seen from one man's eyes. The moment is published innumerabletimes in newspapers, magazines, history books, photography books. The moment itself occurred. Adams recorded it.
That is what distinguishes these photographs. In a time when some have declared photojournalism dead, when public cynicism about news media is justifiable, authentic images of photojournalism stand above all other media imagery. Photographs recognized with a Pulitzer Prize represent the proverbial tip of the iceberg of the reliable visual reportage made available daily. The Pulitzer photos are especially significant, however, because each has been carefully investigated, corroborated by witnesses, and selected from among hundreds of others along the way to nomination. And they have framed the way we will remember the ioth century.
One problem is that the photographs are decidedly North American. Although citizens of other countries have won the Pulitzer, the award can go only to work published in U.S. newspapers. That fact alone should give the careful reader pause. Editors select images for publication based on criteria ranging from "the public needs to know" to "our readers do not want to see this on their breakfast table." Yet by stressing significant American points of view, the photographs reveal what was important to ioth century Americans: war — both victory and defeat, human suffering, human cruelty to other humans, the capriciousness of life and death, the potential gentleness of human interaction.
Another problem is that the photographs are those selected for honor by the Pulitzer Board. Furthermore, the volume includes only the pictures that won in categories of Spot News Photography (1942-1999) and Feature Photography (1968-1999). Not included is a significant body of photographs that exhibit the best spirit of visual reportage, the photographs that tell, along with words, stories that won Pulitzers in traditional word categories, such as investigative journalism, explanatory journalism, public service journalism. Professor Topping notes the omission and highlights the 1997 prize for explanatory journalism awarded in 1997 to journalist Michael Vitez and photographers April Saul and Ron Cortes. His words betray traditional thinking: "The Pulitzer Board quite often has been so impressed by the manner in which a story submitted in a print category has been brought alive by illustrative photos printed with it that it has been compelled to divide the awards between the nominated writers and photographers involved" (p. 7). Even in complimenting photojournalism, the head of the Pulitzer process continues to call the visual reportage "illustrative photos" that help bring a story to life, rather than visual stories containing information that cannot be communicated in words. This volume has been sorely needed to update the 1982 version of Moments. Reviewing both editions will be valuable to the serious student of photojournalism. The earlier edition contains material not included in the 1999 edition. In fact, the statement on the back cover of the recent version is misleading: "Moments ... collects every Pulitzer Prize photograph from 1942, when the photography award was founded, through 1999... ."According to the Pulitzer Prize Web site (www.pulitzer. org/navigation/index.html), 20 photos composed the 1999 award-winning package produced by Associated Press photographers. The book includes only six. Furthermore, of the six photographers in the winning team, only three are noted in the text.
Moments raises a number of other issues: the effects of prize competitions on photojournalists and the kinds of pictures they take; whether or not some of the pictures should be taken, much less published and rewarded; what factors influence the political and ideological points of view inevitably conveyed via journalistic imagery. My research has determined that even the process of nominating a photographer for a Pulitzer can be a carefully managed political process. One can make an argument that the book is primarily a promotional piece for the Pulitzer Prize and possibly for The Associated Press because so many of the photographs published are courtesy of AP/Wide World Photos.
However, to focus on such points is to undermine the indisputable value of the work of men and women who often risk their own lives to show the world to itself. Moments offers important insight into the minds of photojournalists. The 1943 winner is a good example. Contemporary postmodern scholars might denounce the photograph as another example of U.S. colonialism. However, a careful reading of the accompanying text published in Moments reveals that AP photographer Frank Noel literally was in a similar boat as the Indian man with desperate eyes and outreached hand that he recorded on film. Both men had set to sea in lifeboats with no water after their Burma-bound freighter was hit by a Japanese torpedo. Buell writes, "The demoralizing progress of the war, the withering Asian sun, the destructive grip of malaria, and the hopeless situation all failed to lessen Noel's photographic instincts. ... He raised his camera and made an exposure of the wretched sailor whose eyes spoke volumes as his hand reached out to seek help, his expression reflecting the woeful news that there was no water." Though "the Indian sailors were never seen again," Noel and his 4" x 5" film were rescued after reachingthe coral reefs off Sumatra.
Remember this, if nothing else: the purpose of images of photojournalism is to tell the truth visually. Whatever we havecome to understand about the nature of human perception, about the relativity of truth, about the diversity of perspectives humans hold, we cannot deny that female genital mutilation occurred, that babies died in the Oklahoma bombing, that a fire escape collapsed with a woman and child or that such pictures can make a difference. Neither the overt manipulation of advertising nor the fantasy of entertainment can touch the profundity of what actually happens in the course of people's lives. The photographs are made by imperfect human beings using various forms of recording technology — which will continue to change — and individual points of view — which also will change. However, the goal is the same: to report tothe world the happenings of life and death as best as humanly possible. The only alternative is not to see at all. •
Julianne Newton, an Austin photographer and scholar, is author of the forthcoming book, The Burden of Visual Truth: The Role of Photojournalism in Mediating Reality.