A photographer's eye on the Pulitzer photo exhibit at the Constitution Center

DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Local Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers Tom Kelly III (left) and Tom Gralish stand outside the new exhibit at the National Constitution Center that includes their work.
DAVID MAIALETTI / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER Local Pulitzer Prize-winning photographers Tom Kelly III (left) and Tom Gralish stand outside the new exhibit at the National Constitution Center that includes their work.
Posted: October 11, 2013

THERE IS something refreshing in the bare-bones approach to the new exhibition at the National Constitution Center, "Capture The Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs."

White walls. Black frames. Very little text. It's every photojournalist's dream.

Curator Cyma Rubin gives the more than 150 images center stage, allowing the viewer to absorb their content without distraction. A fitting choice, since the images contain some of the most important moments of their time. The show includes every winner since the Pulitzer Prize board began awarding the photography prize in 1942.

This exhibit had a deeper connection for me, a staff photographer for the Daily News. The power of the still image holds true even in the age of digital media, where things appear and disappear in an instant. Close your eyes and think about an important event. I bet a still image enters your mind, not a tweet.

The timing of this exhibit, which opens today through Dec. 31, couldn't be better to serve as a reminder to the journalism community why the craft of photojournalism matters.

Newsrooms have begun handing out iPhones to reporters as a way to cut costs. But no app could replace the trained eye.

For the average viewer, this exhibit should matter because it is our obligation not to look away from the wrongs of the world - and to try to correct them.

That said, the show isn't for everyone. Introductory text on the opening panel reads: "Warning: Some material in this exhibit may be too intense for young children."

This is putting it mildly. The show begins and ends with deep sadness, and that theme pretty much flows throughout.

Even the first sports photograph to win a Pulitzer, in 1949, has a somber mood. The image by Nathaniel Fein, of the New York Herald Tribune, depicts slugger Babe Ruth bowing out of the game. The overcast day fits the journalistic tone of image. Ruth appears larger than life but is slouched, hinting at his illness. He died of cancer not long after he retired. It's an iconic image that is still one of the greatest storytelling sports photographs ever made.

There are a few bright spots along the way, like Chicago Sun-Times photographer John H. White's 1982 Pulitzer winner in feature photography, "Life in Chicago." The single image selected from his essay depicts joy on the faces of children playing in front of a high-rise apartment complex. This is a classic example of how a photojournalist can create beautiful storytelling from everyday life. The image connects the viewer with the community and connects the newspaper to community.

(As a side note, the Sun-Times earlier this year laid off the entire photo staff, including White. Reporters are now using smart phones to take photographs for their stories.)

No photojournalist has been honored with more photography Pulitzers than four-time winner and Bethlehem native Carol Guzy. Guzy has documented natural disasters and global conflicts for the Miami Herald and Washington Post.

Guzy's images are compelling, powerful and gut-wrenching. One image, from the conflict in Haiti, depicts a U.S. gun drawn in the face of an angry crowd. It brings home the point that photojournalists must live in the moment to make the picture, no matter how dangerous.

Philadelphia-area photographers are well represented in the Pulitzer competition. Winners include: Tom J. Kelly III, Pottstown Mercury; Larry C. Price and Tom Gralish, the Inquirer; and Jim MacMillan, a former Daily News photographer, who won for his work with the Associated Press.

Gralish's essay on Philadelphia's homeless, captured with a compassionate eye, and Kelly's jarring spot-news coverage, are the only truly locally made images.

Do not skip the documentary video near the midpoint of the show. My advice is to walk straight to this section and watch the video first. It properly sets up the show and shares personal stories from some of the prizewinning photographers. You'll have a greater appreciation of how these iconic images were made.

National Constitution Center, 525 Arch St., through Dec. 31. Open 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday, till 6 p.m. Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday. $14.50, $13 seniors, students and ages 13-18, $8 ages 4-12, 215-409-6600, constitutioncenter.org.

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