There are images of war, famine, earthquakes, hurricanes, bombings. Not just massive public disasters, but an immortalized hole in the shoe of presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, a woman's tears of joy at the moment her baby is born, athletes celebrating at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles.
Pulitzer images for every year since 1942 - the first year a photo award was given - are on view in the exhibition, "Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs," which runs through Dec. 31 at the center on Independence Mall.
Cyma Rubin, president of Business of Entertainment in New York, is the curator and interviewed many of the photographers. "Capture the Moment" has been shown in 33 venues over the last 13 years, she said, each time updated with the latest scenes of tragedy, joy, and cataclysm.
Jeffrey Rosen, president and chief executive of the Constitution Center, said he could not "imagine, as a journalist and a law professor, a more powerful exhibition."
Rosen lauded the show both for the "power" of the roughly 120 images and for "the communicative value of photography" they illustrate.
Viewed collectively, the images tell a dual story of human continuity and fragility, often amidst almost unimaginable violence and suffering.
War is the great subject.
Decade after decade, from World War II through Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, and countless skirmishes and slaughters in between, battle has compelled photographers, often at risk to their own lives, to convey both horror and triumph, turmoil and quietude, and sometimes even peace.
Some of the most iconic war images do not portray battle. Joe Rosenthal's great image of Marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima (winner in 1945) shows not a single violent act, although the fighting on that small Pacific Island continued for another month after Rosenthal took his picture.
Other images are as horrific now as they were decades ago. Huynh Cong Ut's image of children fleeing their napalmed village in Vietnam, which won the Pulitzer in 1973, is a case in point.
Images such as Ut's, as well as Horst Faas' shot of a South Vietnamese soldier holding a knife to a bound, mud-splattered guerrilla, and Edward T. Adams' image of a South Vietnamese general shooting a captive Viet Cong in the head, did much to inflame the anti-war movement in the United States.
But, as this exhibition makes clear, there was often more to the story than the image. Adams commented on his famous picture, "If you're this general and you just caught this guy after he killed some of your people . . . how do you know you wouldn't have pulled the trigger yourself? . . . It's a war."
Although war remains the critical subject decade after decade, it is not the only subject, by any means.
Inquirer photographer Tom Gralish, who won the Pulitzer in 1986, was cited for his photographic record of the city's homeless, then flooding the streets. His image of Walter, eating Chinese food on the wet sidewalk, "sheltered" from the rain by a cardboard box, speaks to human endurance as much as it documents social disorder.
Says Gralish of his subjects: "They saw themselves as the last free men." (The Inquirer is one of the exhibit sponsors.)
Gralish's photograph is displayed near David Peterson's image of an Iowa couple who had just lost their farm during the credit crisis of the 1980s. The couple stand outside the home and way of life they have lost.
"They were together in their grief but seemed lost and apart in their hopelessness," Peterson said about the couple.
"Capture the Moment" brings the viewer into an often-wrenching chronicle that continues to unfold.
"Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs"
Friday through Dec. 31 at the National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St.
Information: 215-409-6600 or www.constitutioncenter.org