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walking in the light: a life in photography

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The Pulitzer Exhibit

The current collected exhibit of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs is one of the great collections in the history of photography. Certainly, it has the power of The Family of Man, the FSA Depression Era photos of the Roy Stryker team, and the collected works of the 60-plus years of photos from the Missouri Photo Workshop.
I saw the Pulitzer collection recently with my dad at the Truman Library in Independence, MO. The exhibit will be there until sometime in January, I believe. Although the exhibit provides a powerful and necessary visual history of the last 60 years, I found that by the end of the walk through the exhibit, I was a little depressed. Individually, each award-winning photo struck me with its knife-like precision in carving out a piece of human experience for us all to see. I admired the very fact that a photographer was able to capture the image before me and, often, the composition was beautifully arranged even in the most violent and compelling images. However, the collective impact of these photos bothered me by the end of the hour-long walk through the exhibit. Frankly, I was a little surprised at my reaction since I love to view great works by great photographers.
I had a similar experience years ago when I first examined a book I bought by English photographer Don McCullin called "Hearts of Darkness." The images collected in the book revealed McCullin's lifelong mission to document the dark parts of the world: war, starvation, sickness, death, mental illness. His vision took him around the world and most of his adult life. His photos were beautiful black and white images, but the messages they carried were bleak and heart-wrenching. Many of us, as photographers, after shooting just a few of these images would be running to find the bluest sky or a baby, plump and nestled warm in its mother's arms.
Certainly, there were some wonderfully warm moments in the Pulitzer collection: Brian Lanker's 1973 photos of the birth of a child. And, tough as Martin Luther King's death was, Moneta Sleet, Jr.'s photo of a composed and beautiful Coretta Scott King with daughter Bernice in her lap conveys hope and love as our best defense against death and despair.
So, in the end, despite my reaction that day, I admire these Pulitzer-winning photographers who had and have what it takes to bring us the images that disturb our complacency; the images that need to be made to remind us of the human condition. We need these images, disturbing as they are. Much as Charles Dickens did for Victorian England with his writing, Truth can be carried in all its terrible beauty on the wings of wonderful and compelling photographs created by dedicated photographers.