Moments Lose Some Impact in Retelling

Pictures may be overrated as broad metaphors, the universes they encapsulate not always matching ones existing beyond the eye of the lens.

Yet just try severing Dorothea Lange's influential photos of California migrant farm workers and their families during the Great Depression--their faces troubled, yet resolute--from that generation's terrible economic plight and its will to resist adversity and survive.

Or uncoupling Alfred Eisenstaedt's historic shot of a sailor's glorious back-bending smooch of a nurse in New York's Times Square on V-J Day from the entire nation's war-ending euphoria on Aug. 14, 1945.

Is there an image better epitomizing the ugly face of U.S. bigotry than Bill Reed's famed photo of tobacco-chewing Neshoba County Sheriff Lawrence Rainey and Deputy Cecil Price grinning defiantly in court with their redneck cronies while being arraigned in 1964 for the murders of three Mississippi civil rights workers?

Or one more emblematic of parental love than a picture of a Japanese mother tenderly bathing her 17-year-old daughter who was born blind and physically disabled as a result of mercury poisoning?

On and on they go, capturing both epic events and the routine of life, from Robert Capa's remarkable 1937 photo of a soldier falling in the Spanish Civil War, his rifle slipping from his hand a millisecond after he's fatally pierced by a bullet, to an ecstatic, half-immersed woman being baptized in Los Angeles, a boy sitting stiff-backed at his piano recital and Parisian youngsters with joy and fascination on their expressive faces, transfixed by a puppet show.

These are from a wonderful Life magazine picture book published in 1973. I thumbed through it again recently, finding it as rewarding as ever, much more so than Sunday's high-glitz, high-volume "Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs" on TNT.

Not that these six Pulitzer winners aren't commendable, and the stories behind them worth telling. Only that producer-director Cyma Rubin's staging of them plays largely like a typical "reality" show that might be titled "Emergency 911: Photog on the Beat." Lights, cameras, police scanners.

Although great photos demand an emotional response, "Moment of Impact" doesn't trust its award winners to provide that independently. In other words, the program says more about the nature of television in the '90s than the timeless still photojournalism it both salutes and overwhelms with production that includes celebrity host-narrator Sam Waterston ("Inside the building, the firefighters searched for survivors . . ."), recreations ("I ran down the steps . . .") and driving, up-tempo music designed to project a sense of danger and excitement.

As if the photos could not stand alone.

A rim shot is worth a thousand still pictures in the culture of television, which rarely pauses for thought while getting swept up in the frenzy of the moment.

Its own dominant images--repeated again and again and again--nearly always capture the disparaging sadness of human behavior, not the sheer bliss of living. Whether Rodney G. King's savage beating by Los Angeles cops or a white Ford Bronco staying just ahead of pursuing squad cars or shotgun-blasting Daniel V. Jones leaving his brains on a freeway overpass, violence and misery are TV's most indelible visual legacy. And let's not omit the repetitive cranking up of that lipsticked, rouged-up, blond-curled little cowgirl, Jon Benet Ramsey.

Yet still photos have a distinctive essence, and arguably a more enduring shelf life than TV pictures.

To be considered for a Pulitzer, a photo must have appeared in a U.S. newspaper. Most of the winners in "Moment of Impact" are of the spot-news variety, the most famous being Robert H. Jackson's picture in the Dallas Times Herald of Jack Ruby gunning down Lee Harvey Oswald in the media-glutted Dallas police basement on Nov. 24, 1963. Jackson was positioned to snap Oswald head-on when Ruby stepped in front of him, and the photographer estimates that both shot simultaneously.

Also here is Stanley J. Forman's 1975 shot in the Boston Herald American of a girl, who lived, and a young woman, who didn't, falling from a burning building just out of reach of a firefighter. And Pennsylvania photographer Tom Kelly's series of pictures of a savage killer and his victims at the crime scene in 1978, in addition to a Santa Rosa Press Democrat photo by Annie Wells (who is now with the Los Angeles Times) of a teenage girl seemingly about to be swept under the turbulent waters of a flash flood in 1996 despite a rescue worker's repeated attempts to save her.

Here, too, are shocking 1951 pictures by Don T. Ultang and John Robinson, in the Des Moines Register & Tribune, of star Drake University footballer Johnny Bright, a black, being brutalized on the field by an all-white Oklahoma A&M; team in a series of illegal attacks that ultimately drove him from the game with a broken jaw.

My personal favorite in this group comes from Slava Veder. For sheer, transcendent elation, nothing beats his 1973 whopper shot of a returning Vietnam POW, Lt. Col Robert L. Stirm, being greeted by his family at Travis Air Force Base in California. It's Stirm's back we see, along with the jubilant faces of his loved ones charging toward him, first a daughter with arms outstretched, then a son, then another daughter, then his wife, then a second son. They just can't get there fast enough.

Yet the magic of the photo dissipates in the explaining of it, and in the profiling of its subjects, a crash landing coming when the family stiffly recalls the moment ("I was kinda afraid you wouldn't recognize us," a daughter remarks 26 years later) and Stirm just as ponderously shows off a C-141 like the one that flew him home.

There are errors of omission here too, including no comparison of the moments of impact provided by Jackson's Ruby photo and the surrounding live TV coverage of Oswald being fatally shot. Nor is there a pause to weigh the significance of Wells continuing to snap away at the flood-threatened teen after the photographer says she was asked by the girl to stop.

"Sometimes when someone asks you not to take a picture, you don't do it," Wells says in the program. "But this was a time when I felt I had to do it." The girl's pleas notwithstanding, perhaps no adrenalin-pumping shooter on the planet would have stopped snapping at that point. But is it proper to ignore a victim's wishes in such matters on behalf of the People's Right to Know?

Time has a way of smoothing these things out. Perhaps Dorothea Lange's subjects didn't want her to shoot them either. Yet anyone seeing them vibrantly immortalized today, including in her renowned "Migrant Mother" photo that hangs in the Library of Congress, is thankful that she did.

* "Moment of Impact" airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on TNT. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children).

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