Arts » Visual Art

History's First Draft

A collection of award-winning photographs comes to Caldwell

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Here's one you might not have heard before: History is being made in Caldwell, Idaho. "Capture the Moment," a comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, is currently exhibiting at Albertson College. One hundred thirty-four photographs, representing every winner from 1942 through 2005, are on display in four buildings across campus. Divided by decade, the photographs in this collection chronicle the past 65 years and, in many instances, have made lasting impressions that have come to define our collective memory of particular times and places.

The images range from the iconic to the everyday, yet each captures something unique and timeless, revealing something universal through its specific subject. Many of these photographs are familiar, others shed light on more obscure instances of heroism, atrocity, joy and despair. While this exhibit makes for a fascinating (if not vital) lesson in contemporary history, these photographs often transcend their historical context to address, and at times indict, human nature and its condition.

The exhibit was developed by the Newseum in Washington, D.C., a thoroughly modern museum of journalism dedicated to the how and why of the news. In a press release for the exhibit, curator Cyam Rubin describes the collection as having an uncanny ability "to reach people, to get through, to communicate. Quickly and clearly, they say war is brutal and victory sweet, children are innocent, and life is fragile--and they say it equally to men and women of different classes and cultures. Perhaps most important of all, the very best pictures change the way we think."

There is a proclivity for sensational images in this exhibit and what these pictures depict is often disturbingly real. The Pulitzer Prize is, after all, awarded to the best photograph published in a newspaper, an outlet designed to sell news. Couple this with our media's preoccupation with brutality and violence, and it's no surprise that many of these pictures are dramatic. Still, given the super saturation of violence in our popular culture, it's curious how arresting some of these images are. Particularly gruesome images on the nightly news or in a movie might stick in your head for a spell, but the photographs in this collection burrow and never leave. There are no commercial breaks here, and the camera never cuts. The prints are large and mounted naked, without frame or matte. There is nothing but your eyes and the image, stuck together for as long as you can handle it, while you take in the precise moment when life gives way to its counterpart and contemplate the horrendous implications of these images. Some pictures force you to turn away. Some you can't turn away from, as if the moment you take your eyes off of a little girl in a photo, she will die of starvation, and the vulture in the background will get her. Yes, these are images that stick.

Though many of these pictures are tough to stomach, the exhibit's intensity level is periodically relieved with an image celebrating life that eases the creeping suspicions about humanity. Of the 850 linear feet of wall space dedicated to the exhibit, maybe 50 of it is occupied with photographs that could be considered uplifting, and those precious few are like rays of light. There's something warm and euphoric about freedom, love, birth--even about German gutter punks going berserk on the Berlin wall. These glimmers of hope among despair hold a strange power. Despite everything, they instill the will to go on with the show.

Scheduled to travel the country through 2008, Albertson College is the only venue in the Intermountain West showing the exhibit. It's one of the smallest venues to host the exhibit and the only place to display it in more than one building. Though done out of spatial necessity, dividing up the exhibit works quite effectively. It reinforces the historical identity of each decade, and, as Albertson College English professor Diane Raptosh notes, "Putting it in different buildings allows you to take a breath and gather your thoughts." Which is good, because it's heavy stuff that gets heavier as it goes. Walking from the Sixties to the Seventies, I overheard someone say, "Geez, hopefully the next decade won't be as depressing." But it was. The second floor of Langroise Hall, the 1980s, was filled with solemn, long faces, hands pressed to mouths, sighs, anguished looks, empty eyes and slumped shoulders. Many of the images are dense, some ambiguous. All are evocative, some through their simplicity, some through their complexity. As Raptosh puts its, "They articulate emotional states for which there is no noun." It's true, these pictures give you the oddest feelings, and most of them aren't so pleasant. Viewers are likely to walk away from this exhibit with a barrage of emotions, reflecting the talent it took to illustrate war, greed, love and hate through a photograph.

So, why go see an exhibit that may make you feel conflicted? Alan Minskoff, director of journalism at Albertson College, describes it as a learning experience, saying "[It's] an indictment of where man goes wrong." Instrumental in bringing the exhibit to Albertson College, Minskoff explains the importance of seeing these images despite their difficulty. "These are very powerful expressions ... that challenge [their] audience and get people to think. Really, what more can you ask for?"

If you've ever felt a little disconnected from the outside world here in Idaho, this exhibit provides a brilliant opportunity to connect with something larger. As you view these images, you not only relate to the people in the pictures, but to everyone else who has viewed and been affected by this exhibit. These photographs have and will continue to leave indelible impressions on our national consciousness. Taking part in this exhibit plugs you into this consciousness.

Author Geoffrey Ward once wrote, "journalism is merely history's first draft," and history's gruesome, disturbing turns are on full display here. Hard as it is coming to terms with the darker side of humanity, the awareness is enlightening. Though the history has been written on some of the events captured in these photographs, the legacy of others is still unfolding. By bearing witness to these photographs, an individual will become inextricably linked to the creation of history's next draft. While it may seem impossible for an individual to change the course of history, making the trek out to Caldwell to check out this incredible collection is a step in the right direction.

"Capture the Moment" is on display through March 11 at Albertson College of Idaho in four buildings: Jewett Auditorium, Langroise Center, Rosenthal Art Gallery and Hendren Hall. The exhibit is open from 5 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. There is a panel discussion with photographers, writers, editors and Pulitzer Prize winners on Wednesday, March 7, from 7 to 9 p.m. in Langroise Recital Hall. For more information, visit www.albertson.edu/spotlights/capturethemoment.asp or www.newsmuseum.com.

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