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‘That’s a good picture’

Gilcrease Pulitzer photo show is an emotional ride

Burst of Joy (1974) is one of many iconic images on display at the Gilcrease Museum’s new Pulitzer photo exhibit.

Slava Veder/Associated Press

The Gilcrease Museum’s newest exhibit takes an emotional toll. Pulitzer Prize Photographs showcases humanity’s most iconic moments from across the globe over the last 77 years. It is a living, breathing document of life as we know it.

To hear Gilcrease curator of history Mark Dolph tell it, it’s the most important exhibition they’ve ever brought to the Museum.

“It’s a different kind of exhibit,” he said. “These images run the gamut of human emotions. There are some that will make you feel good down to your toes, and there are some that will make you angry, or send you into despair.”

Entering through the main central hallway, a historical contextualization of Joseph Pulitzer and the Prize itself sets the pace for the exhibit. In the second room, introductory photographs and video interviews with the photojournalists speaking about the power of the still image provide more valuable context. As prominent American photographer Eddie Adams—who took the famous photo of a Viet Cong execution—said: “If it makes you laugh, if it makes you cry, if it rips out your heart: That’s a good picture.”

This show will do everything Adams described and more.Decidedly unstuffy, the powerful exhibit isn’t marked by the exclusivity of “fine art,” but by the dirty, noble, brutal, sad, enlightened moments of our recent history reduced into milliseconds and captured in still frames. (Be warned: This exhibition will probably reduce you to a blubbering mess at least once. For this reporter, it was four or five times.)

One of the most difficult photos might at first appear to be the most innocuous. The 1952 Pulitzer winner, “Racial Attack on the Football Field” (Donald T. Ultang), is powerful not for the quality or emotion of the photograph—at first glance, it’s a typical image of football play—but rather what it signifies. “Racial Attack” depicts a brutal blow to black Drake University running back Johnny Bright, a Heisman candidate who had at that point gained more yardage than any player in college football history. He was the first black player to play football on Lewis Field, at Oklahoma A&M College, now Oklahoma State University.

Bright was hit three times in the first seven minutes by A&M defensive tackle Wilbanks Smith. The third blow broke Bright’s jaw, and he was carried—according to the Des Moines Register, “protestingly”—off the field. This might have been a non-story, had the Des Moines Register not reported that the A&M coach yelled “get that n*****” when A&M ran offensive drills preparing for the Drake game. While A&M had been integrated since 1949, Bright could not stay on campus with the Drake team, instead staying off-campus with a local black family. The incident was published nationwide, and OSU did not apologize for the incident until 2005—22 years after Bright’s death.

Most Americans will be profoundly affected by photographs surrounding traumatic events like 9/11 and Columbine. These moments sit alongside the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, the Vietnam War, and the killing of Lee Harvey Oswald by Jack Ruby.

Come with at least an hour to spare, if not more. And if you bring anyone with you, make sure it’s someone you don’t need to impress. Unless this person is impressed by your tears. “We have Kleenexes throughout the exhibit for a reason,” Dolph said.

The word “Pulitzer” evokes an image of grandeur. After all, the prize is the pinnacle of awards for creatives; but the real grandeur of the show is its human core—the way it deftly contextualizes these massive historical moments into emotionally legible information. Read the captions slowly and step back, taking time to take in the whole picture in. Feel Oklahoma history, American history, world history, your history, wash over you.

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