Lost in the chatter about blogs and 24-hour news cycles is a sense of how much of what we’re told is news, really isn’t. It was 1962 when culture critic Daniel Boorstin labeled the phenomenon: Boorstin called press conferences, photo ops, publicity stunts and anniversary celebrations “pseudo-events” — occurrences planned expressly to attract media.
Today, in the infotainment age , with advertising pervading every corner of the planet, things have hardly improved. Powerful people have gotten only better at manipulating the media — and everybody, it seems, is empowered to call a press conference. Apparently, we all agree that the best way to change things is to get cameras pointing your way.
You might expect that Capture the Moment, the traveling exhibit of Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper photographs, would reflect this trend toward pseudo-events. Happily, it doesn’t. But the exhibit, now at the Heinz History Center, still tells plenty about how we look at news, and at ourselves.
Capture the Moment, which originated at Washington, D.C.’s Newseum, includes about 140 photos — every winner since the prize was launched, in 1942. (In 1968, separate awards were created for spot news — now called “breaking news” — and feature photography.) Some images — Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima (shot by Joe Rosenthal); Ruby killing Oswald (Robert H. Jackson) — are embedded in our cultural DNA. And the Pulitzer is explicitly American: Images must run in a U.S. newspaper to qualify. Thus, many winning photos broadly reflect American history, with World War II and the Vietnam War oft-represented.
Nonetheless, it’s surprising to learn, in the text accompanying each image, how many early winners were amateurs who simply chanced upon amazing scenes. It’s curious to note that the first color photograph to win was in 1984. (Few pre-USA Today papers published in color.) Likewise, certain images seem anomalous: Frank Cushing’s “Teen-Age Shooter” depicts a “recent” phenomenon: an armed, 15-year-old hostage-taker who’s just shot a cop; Cushing took it in 1947. And with the images exhibited larger than we’d see in newsprint, compelling details leap out: I’d never noticed that in the famous “Kent State Massacre,” by Natrona Heights native John Paul Filo, the distraught student’s T-shirt reads “Slave.”
But there’s more going on here — and it’s not just the show’s layout, which reflects the cognitive dissonance supplied by your friendly daily paper, where hydrocephalic Ethiopian babies starve alongside well-fed Americans feting an Olympic swim champ. With the creation of the “feature” category, the Pulitzers honored the sort of work that magazines like Life pioneered: intense depictions — usually portfolios, represented here by just an image or two — of particular lives or subcultures. Once, to get Pulitzered, grief and joy had to take place on the street, and be captured in a single shot. Then came in-depth spreads on Lamaze childbirth, recuperating burn victims and ordinary high school kids.
Likewise, and commendably, the feature category also laid before America’s most prestigious news contest the investigative landscape. Thus came 1970’s suite on migrant laborers in Florida, followed by exposés on an Illinois hospital for the mentally retarded, a Michigan prison, the homeless and illegal immigrants. Even “spot news” entries can be a series: Martha Rial’s 1998 winner, on African refugees, includes not only the single main-exhibit image but also a separate display of other deeply moving photos she shot on the same trip, while a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette staffer.
Over 65 years, much remains the same in Pulitzer photos. Relatively few winners are shot at pseudo-events — except when something goes horribly wrong, like assassination attempts, of which several are depicted. And disasters still rule: Images of bombings, fires, famine, floods, massacres and hurricanes, or at least accidents of some kind, continue to comprise the lion’s share of breaking-news winners, and to weigh heavily on features.
Well, obviously: Human drama is most visible when humans are pushed to extremes. Yet there’s a paradox: As a group, these paragons of newspaper photography don’t scream “newsworthiness,” per se. Disasters, of course, are news, and even accidents as localized as the Minneapolis hit-and-run aftermath depicted in William Seaman’s 1958 winner affects a community. But with the partial exception of the wars documented, the Pulitzers aren’t a history book. The images work only partly because of what they document; mostly, it’s a matter of how. In that sense, they’re less vehicles for history-changing events they are art.
Most disasters have short shelf lives; if these photos didn’t illuminate the human condition, we wouldn’t be looking at them years later no matter how newsworthy they once were. My favorites include Gerald H. Gay’s ’75 winner, of Seattle firemen after a blaze, as restrained and classically composed as a daylit Rembrandt. In 1981’s “Liberia — Executioners Celebrate,” Larry Price turns a badly backlit scene into an image of modernist graphic intensity: terror drunk with power. Two breathtaking images from The New York Times staff’s 2002 feature “War and Peace in Afghanistan” poetically evoke the hopes of a hopeless people.
Some Pulitzer photos are good because they connect us, even in tragedy, with our humanity: Yashushi Nagao capturing the spectacles bouncing from the nose of a shocked (and doomed) Japanese politician as he faces the sword-wielding young assassin who’s just stabbed him on stage.
And some photos are good, perhaps especially, because they connect us with our inhumanity: The avidity of striking Detroit autoworkers pummeling a dissenter (Milton Brooks, 1942). The surreal vision of one South African swinging a machete into the head of another — whom he’s just set on fire (Greg Marinovich, 1991). And Neal Ulevich’s 1977 shot of a Bangkok political lynching: Though a few young onlookers appear horrified to see the strung-up corpse battered with a folding chair, a greater number smile tranquilly, or even laugh out loud, as they watch news in the making.
Capture the Moment continues through Aug. 5. Heinz History Center, 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. 412-454-6000