These are the images we've seen over and over again, the indelibles, some in black and white, some in color, and all supremely indicative of the times they record. The 128 photographs included in Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs don't just tell stories; they immerse us in the instant, give us a big push into the annals of history. In other words, we are there.
Tears won't be out of the question for viewers of this exhibit, which opens September 2 at the Colorado History Museum. Capture the Moment was developed by the Newseum interactive museum of news, a media archive currently found in cyberspace while its building is being completed in Washington, D.C. The touring show provides the Colorado Historical Society with a rare bit of blockbuster cachet. And it's not just an important exhibit, but an affordable one, too, with admission prices topping out at $5.
The display is worth every penny. It's an awesome experience to be confronted by the unframed and unadorned large-scale versions of Joe Rosenthal's Iwo Jima flag-raisers ("Old Glory Goes Up on Mount Suribachi," 1945), Coloradan Robert Jackson's snap of Jack Ruby pumping bullets into Lee Harvey Oswald (1964), Eddie Adams's shocking Vietnam-era shot seen 'round the world ("Viet Cong Execution," 1968), or more recent images from 9/11. The photos are arranged chronologically, and each is accompanied by firsthand accounts from the photographers.
The museum also includes a small Colorado sideshow of relevant photos from the Denver Post and the Rocky Mountain News. Our state, after all, owns a share of Pulitzer kudos and connections, with photos taken at such catastrophic events as the Columbine High School massacre and the Hayman Fire, and others shot on the faraway shores of Thailand, El Salvador and Angola by Colorado-based photographers.
What makes the Pulitzer works so significant? CHS photography curator Eric Paddock points out that the role of photography in recording the recent abuse of inmates at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq re-emphasizes the importance of the medium as a tool for boosting public awareness.
"Some of them are pretty gritty," Paddock says of the entire array of winning photos. "Many of the pictures show how badly we can treat one another, yet others show how generous we can be." Regardless of their messages, he explains, the images engage a spectrum of emotions, from horror and sadness to great joy.
That's precisely the reason that publisher Joseph Pulitzer set aside an endowment for the awards in his will. And from the first winner to the most recent, the photos in Capture the Moment take viewers on a roller-coaster ride through modern history.
Does Paddock have any favorites? Not really, but he keeps going back to one -- a shot from the 1950s remarkably taken by a little girl with a Kodak Brownie camera who encountered a semi truck hanging off a bridge while driving with her father and brother. As her father rushed to rescue the truck driver, her brother reminded her that the Sacramento Bee awarded a weekly ten-dollar prize for amateur photographs, so the girl serendipitously grabbed her camera and took a picture.
"It had all the important elements -- the catastrophic event, the dramatic denouement, the hero -- and it was captured by a child using the cheapest of cameras," Paddock recounts. "It reminds me that we all encounter these kinds of events, but so often, for one reason or another, we miss them."
Fortunately, we have photographers to do that work for us.