Friday, May 9, 2008

Picture This

It's become a cliché to say that a picture speaks a thousand words, but after visiting this exhibit at the Ohio Historical Society yesterday, I would say the adage is completely true. The exhibit is made up of Pulitzer winning photographs from the last 50 years. It's an intense visual journey through history.

Several things struck me about the exhibit. To begin with, these are 11x20 or larger prints of the photos. Usually when you see a great example of photojournalism, you see it on grainy newsprint and in a small box above the fold. The size of these photos really brought the emotion they were depicting to life. Pulitzer prize winning photos tend to show raw emotion, but are composed perfectly.

As you are walking through the exhibit, it's important to read the accompanying text as the words work together with the picture to put it in perspective. Without the text, it would sometimes be hard to understand the photo. Some of the images, though showed such heartbreak you didn't really need the complete story. Fear, pain and suffering is the same on the face of a starving child as it is on the face of a civil war embattled widow.
It's also interesting to see how the technology and the focus of the photos have changed in the last 50 years. The accompanying text for the early photos tells of photographers changing flash bulbs at just the right moment to get the shot. The text also told of photographer in the 70s and 80s, smuggling film out of war zones. The photos eventually switched from black and white to color and then some back to black and white as the format changed to digital. It also seemed the early images were more national in subject while the more recent are international. All are powerful.

Some of the images, such as the soldier being greeted by his family in the 70s and Babe Ruth's last game in the 50s, were familiar. A few of the images, such as the fireman carrying the baby out of the rubble of the Oklahoma City bombing in the 90s and the little Vietnamese girl with her clothes burned off in the 70s, were painfully identifiable. There were many pictures of war and famine. A lot of the images dealt with the civil rights movement, a lot more dealt with the Vietnam war and several of the images were of places and times most Americans wouldn't know about if the photographers wouldn't have traveled the world.

Many of the images and related text moved me to tears. The exhibit is laid out with a large reflecting room in the middle. It has couches and plenty of Kleenex and is mostly a visually devoid space. I skipped the reflecting room, but maybe shouldn't have because I did feel rather overwhelmed after walking the exhibit. We had only planned on being there for a little bit, but ended up staying for almost two hours. If you're local, it's worth the trip. If you're not local, don't be so quick to dismiss the photographs on the front page of a newspaper, as they could be telling an important story. I know I won't be so fast to dismiss the next piece of photojournalism I see.

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