"History," as Henry Ford so memorably remarked, "is bunk." And for most of us, the endless history of the last 60-odd years is not expressed in words, but in images.
I doubt whether a single Independent reader under 50 has read Churchill's magisterial five-volume history of World War II, but I'll bet that all of us have seen Joe Rosenthal's photograph of the raising of the American flag on Mount Suribachi. That iconic shot won the Pulitzer Prize for photography in 1945. It, along with 129 other Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs, is on display at the Colorado History Museum in Denver until Dec. 12.
This is an exhibition that's both fascinating and deeply disquieting. These are the common images of our collective unconscious, the searing reminders of the terrible times that so many have endured.
Here are the winners from the '60s, images of war, death, and domestic upheaval. Armed and bearded, a group of African-American students leave a sit-in at Cornell University, where they had occupied the administration building. A slender young Vietnamese man is executed on the street by Gen. Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the chief of the South Vietnamese police force. A naked child runs screaming down a dirt path, her body burned by napalm. Lee Harvey Oswald dies at the hands of Jack Ruby. Coretta Scott King, calm and luminous in grief, mourns her fallen husband.
And here are the photographs from World War II, whose stories are possibly even more terrible. Those heroic Marines on Mount Suribachi? Of the five, three would die in the next few days, as combat continued on Iwo Jima. And look at the blasted, lunar landscape or Tarawa, once a lush tropical island, now the graveyard of thousands of Americans, Japanese and Koreans.
And here are the images from Africa -- not of wild animals and Mount Kilimanjaro, but of starvation, brutality and war. An Ethiopian mother and child stare at us through hollow eyes, hopeless and emaciated. An impromptu firing squad executes a dozen men; it's not clear why. An enraged crowd drags the naked body of an American soldier through the streets of Mogadishu.
And here are the poignant, solitary tragedies of American lives. A girl plummets to her death from a burning building. A child's body, covered with a blanket, lies in the street, next to his crushed wagon. A high school boy lies dying in a Columbine walkway, as other students cower behind a parked car.
Each of these images is incredibly powerful, immediate and troubling. But taken all at once, they fade and disappear. Your eye, your mind, your heart just can't deal with them -- you go gratefully to the few subtle, contemplative images in the show.
Look at Nat Fein's shot of Babe Ruth's farewell at Yankee Stadium in 1949. Stooped, his body racked with cancer, the Babe stands on the field where he forever defined the game of baseball. This single photograph speaks eloquently about fame, about mortality, and about remembrance. Or look at the 1952 winner, a warm and unguarded portrait of Democratic presidential nominee Adlai Stevenson, the hole in the sole of his shoe clearly visible. It's hard to believe that major parties once nominated non-millionaires for national office.
There are plenty of Colorado connections in the show, including multiple images from Columbine and the Hayman fire, for which the Rocky Mountain News photo staff was awarded Pulitzers in 2000 and 2003.
Most of these photographs are not fine art; like a gunshot, they're powerful, immediate and scarily memorable. But some are; and of those, the finest is, I think, Don Bartletti's 2003 image "Enrique's Journey." Created as part of the story of a penniless Honduran teenager trying to get to America, it's a picture of the boy, seen from behind, riding on top of a boxcar in a foggy dawn. You don't know where Enrique's been; you don't know where he's going -- but you understand his journey, one of hope, fear, and, as the caption tells us, success.
It's one of the last images in the show, and one to savor. And here's a pop quiz: In the 62 years since the Pulitzer was first awarded, only one man has been the subject of two award-winners. Who? Nope, not Churchill, not Eisenhower, not Roosevelt ... give up? Bill Clinton. First in 1992, schmoozing a kid on the campaign trail, and again in 1998, standing grimly with Hillary during his impeachment ordeal.
Final thought: last Pulitzer of the 20th century -- Columbine. First Pulitzer of the 21st: the fireball bursting from the second tower of the World Trade Center.
Capture the Moment: The Pulitzer Prize Photographs
Showing through Dec. 12
Colorado History Museum 1300 Broadway, Denver. Just south of Civic Center Park, between Broadway and Lincoln on 13th Avenue 303/866-4597
Hours: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Thursday, Friday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday: Noon to 5 p.m., Closed Thanksgiving day
Adults $5; Seniors and students with ID $4.50; Members and children under 5 free
Tickets available through TicketWeb, 866/468-7624 or www.ticketweb.com, or on a first-come, first-served basis at the door.