The money award, five thousand dollars, isn't all that much.
But the Pulitzer Prizes are the most sought-after awards in American journalism. They were established by an endowment in the 1904 will of Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the New York World and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "for the encouragement of public service, public morals, American literature and the advancement of education." Almost from the start, prizes have been awarded for news reporting, commentary, editorial cartooning, as well as for fiction, biography, history, poetry and drama.
Pulitzers for various forms of classical music, including ballet, weren't awarded until 1943. That was just two years after somebody also woke up to the fact that newspapers and magazines ran pictures too, and decided to award Pulitzers for photography.
It shouldn't surprise. Except on rare publications like the old Life Magazine or National Geographic in its free-spending heyday, photographers, especially news photographers, always have played second fiddle to their writing brethren. I should know. I was a reporter for 20 years before I became a professional photographer. I'm sure it's because I also was an avid amateur photographer during my years on the New York Daily News that I saw immediately how foolish this was.
The plain truth was that, even though it always was preferable to witness a story happening firsthand, we writers could make do if need be with a "fill" from colleagues: quotes drawn from another's notebook or tape recording. Not so with photographers. "F.8 and be there," was, and is, the news shooter's credo.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, The Daily News briefly put out an afternoon edition as well as a morning paper. I was tied by my new afternoon deadlines to Jimmy Carter's press plane, having to listen to an audio feed of the president's remarks when he spoke early in the day and then dictate a story by phone from my seat in order to make the latest edition.
God help me if someone had pegged a tomato-or worse, a shot-at the president.
There were never any photographers on the plane with me then. Covering news with a camera means you have no excuse for not being there-and for not getting a picture. Whether it's a great picture is up to the photographer and his or her skills, instincts, and, in some cases, luck.
Which is why anyone who ever has wondered what kind of person it takes to win a Pulitzer Prize in photography must go the Newseum in Arlington, Va., and see "The Pulitzer Prize Photographs: Capture the Moment" and marvel at the work of some of the best men and women in the maddening, exhilarating and often dangerous business of photojournalism. It is the largest exhibition of Pulitzer Prize photography ever assembled in the U.S.
Glitzy though the Newseum is its permanent exhibits have been designed to a fare-thee-well-the Pulitzer show is refreshingly austere. Just superb pictures, beautifully printed and elegantly hung in an upper floor salon, complemented by text from the excellent show catalog. Happily, too, the photos in the salon have not been blown up to mural size. They are of accessible scale and, therefore, much easier to take in.
These pictures don't have to overwhelm to impress.
What do impress are the behind-the-scene stories of each award-winning picture, often shedding new light even on images that have become icons.
Take Eddie Adams's 1968 picture of South Vietnam's national police chief summarily executing a Viet Cong officer on the streets of Saigon. The image became a talisman of the antiwar movement as an example of the war's excesses. But Adams, then with the AP, recalls in the text accompanying his picture that the South Vietnamese general, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, viewed the killing as an act of justice: the Viet Cong prisoner had just murdered a South Vietnamese colonel, his wife and their six children.
"How do you know you wouldn't have pulled the trigger yourself?" Adams asks-though the catalog also notes that Adams himself couldn't bring himself to even look at his image for some two years after he made it.
Then there is the sad story of South African photojournalist Kevin Carter, who made the indelible image of a starving Sudanese child, ribs exposed, crouched head to the ground, as a vulture sits nearby, awaiting the inevitable. It won the 1994 Pulitzer for feature photography and haunted Carter for the rest of his short life. Everyone wanted to know: why didn't he pick up the child? But journalists were warned never to touch famine victims, who may have transmittable disease. Still, Carter confided to a friend that he wished he had intervened. Shortly after he won the Pulitzer, a friend and colleague of Carter's was killed in township violence in South Africa and Carter's life spiraled quickly downward. He committed suicide at age 33.
But not every image and story here is somber or sad. Ken Geiger's exultant photograph of the Nigerian women's relay team at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, reacting to the scoreboard announcing their Bronze medal in the just-ended 4x100 relay, is a glorious portrait of human joy. So too is Sal Vader's 1974 Vietnam-era winner showing members of an American family rushing to embrace their returning POW father.
Must one be a professional photographer to win a Pulitzer? No. "The competition is open to all comers who adhere to the rules," notes Seymour Topping, administrator of the Prizes.
That included the late Virginia Schau, who, driving on a fishing trip with her husband and father in 1953 in Redding, Calif., watched horrified as a tractor trailer went out of control on a bridge and began to plunge over the side. But, miraculously the cab stopped and dangled over the edge, with its two occupants screaming for help. As Schau's husband and another motorist lowered a rope to them, Schau's father reminded his daughter of the Sacramento Bee's weekly photo contest.
Schau rushed back to her car and grabbed her camera-a Kodak Brownieand recorded the successful rescue.
She made the picture, won $10 from the Bee, as well as a Pulitzer.
THE PULITZER PRIZE PHOTOGRAPHS: CAPTURE THE MOMENT The Newseum, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. Through March 11. Hours: Tu.-Sun., 10 a.m to 5 p.m. Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year's days. Admission free. Metro: Rosslyn Station (Blue/Orange lines). Info: 703-284-3544 or 888/NEWSEUM.
Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Down East Maine/A World Apart (Down East Books). He can be reached at email@example.com.