Newseum – The Pullitzer Prize Gallery

I was in Washington DC a couple of days ago looking for the National Gallery and the Harry Callahan exhibition and came across the Newseum!  As soon as I spotted their exhibition of Pullitzer Prize winning photographs I knew that I would have to go in to take a look.

The Pullitzer prizes cover 21 categories and winners receives $10,000 and a medal.  The awards were first given 1917 having been established from the estate of Joseph Pullitzer, a wealthy Newspaper owner.  The categories featured were for Spot Photography (Breaking News) and Feature Photography.

The Newseum gallery features the largest collection of Pullitzer prize winning photographs ever assembled and includes video interviews with many of the photographers.

The Newseum itself has 7 levels of galleries and is a stunning glass and stone museum featuring the text of the 1st amendment, that is devoted to current and historical aspects of news and the media.

All around the front of the building are the front pages of daily papers taken from all around America, reminding us of the vast number of publications that are being produced.  They are of great interest to the passing public and always seemed to attract a line of readers taking a look at what was occurring around their country.

The Pullitzer prize gallery was a delightful mix of new, fascinating photographs and old friends that I have seen many times.  I spent much longer than I expected reading the stories behind the photos and watching interviews with the photographers.There were 158 pictures covering the years between 1942 and 2010 and I would love to mention every one but all I am able to cover are those which had a real impact on me.

During the Islamic Revolution that swept Ayatollah Khomeini to power the Revolutionary Guard dispensed their view of ‘justice’ in mock trials.  The sentences passed were quick and brutal.  This photograph was taken by an ‘Unknown’ Iranian news photographer but was released by a UPI staffer and went world wide.  It wasn’t until  2006 did Jahangir Razmi feel safe enough to reveal his name.  Observing the moment of death, particularly when seeing the image in a newspaper on your kitchen table has a shocking effect on us all.  The emotions that they generate have often been the catalyst that brings about change which is why they are often considered so important… right back to the image of the falling soldier taken by Capa in 1936 during the Spanish civil war.

Putting these two images of the flag, ‘Old Glory’ together is deliberate.  The juxtaposition is easy to see with one flag being honoured and cherished, and the other being used as a weapon in an attack of racial hatred.

I think the story of the flag being raised at Iwo Jima is fairly well known although not everyone will realise that it was the second time the task was performed and that the battle for the island continued on for another 31 days.  Thirty two years later Stanley Foreman captured the second image of the flag being used as a weapon by demonstrators in Boston protesting against plans to  bus black children to integrate white schools.  The innocent black man who just happened to be passing was a business man on his way to City Hall.

The emotions that pictures of this quality can evoke is amazing… for me it is one of the enduring merits of still photography.  Whist a motion picture comes and goes, the lasting visual impact of a single image can endure for a lifetime.  Here, both from 1973, the moment of child birth captured by Brian Lanker is contrasted by the well known photograph of ‘Nick’ Ut showing the aftermath of a US napalm attack on a Vietnamese village.  The naked girl, Phan Thi Kim Phuc, whose clothes have been burned from her body runs screaming towards the photographer… she survives and to this day she and the photographer have stayed in touch.  The battered Leica that Nick Ut used that day is also part of the exhibition.

1991 sees Greg Marinovicvh in Soweto, South Africa when he stumbles on a gun fight between supporters of the ANC.  A Zulu man is accused of being an Inkatha spy and is murdered during a brutal attack and Marinovich captures the awful event.  I find the task faced by news photographers in situations like this to be too enormous to imagine.  How to keep your wits about yourself when all rules of humanity have been suspended is a remarkable thing.

A much more introspective image taken by Paul Vathis shows Kennedy and Eisenhower deep in thought as they confer following the disastrous attempted invasion of Cuba by the USA, the Bay of Pigs.  The press photographers had been told to stop working but Vathis grabbed this image through the legs of a Secret Service man.  The image is beautifully composed despite being taken on the fly.

Watching the linesmen repair high voltage cables after a failure, Rocco Morabito sees one of them fall after being electrocuted.  His friend attempts to resuscitate him whilst he hangs from his harness.  Morabito takes a couple of frames and then dashes off to phone an ambulance.  When he returns he takes the winning shot and prays for the injured man.  The shout comes down, “He’s breathing!”

With 158 remarkable images to view I could have written so much more but all I have room for is a few of those which caught my eye and my imagination.  I left this exhibition with a mix of emotions, horror, excitement, awe and sober introspection.  I hugely admire the professional and amateur photographers who have managed to capture the moment that defines a year by winning this prestigious award… let alone those who win it twice!  The quality of the photographs, often taken in very arduous and emotional circumstances is quite remarkable and I am truly humbled.

There is so much more to see in this museum, I look forward to an opportunity to visit again.

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