Experience

Accidental Photographs That Got a Pulitzer

We are used to the fact that the news is often reported by accidental eyewitnesses, but in the middle of the previous century this was still rare. And nonetheless, the photographs taken by a housewife who was going fishing and a PhD student who was on his way home from dancing received a prestigious journalistic award.

On May 3, 1953, a 38-year-old housewife from California named Virginia and her husband Walter were on their way to fish in Shasta Lake. Near Redding, the driver of a fruit truck in front of them lost control and crashed into the railing of the bridge across the Pit River. The couple ran out of the car and saw that the trailer was still balancing on the edge, but the cabin with both drivers inside was dangling above the river.

Taking a photograph was not the first thing that the Schau couple did: they immediately rushed to help. Luckily, one of the other witnesses of the crash had a thick sea rope in his trunk, which Walter together with the other men threw into the cabin. As soon as the drivers, Bud Overby and Hank Baum, got onto the bridge, the engine of the truck caught fire, and the cabin fell down on the rocks from 12 meters.

While Virginia’s husband was carrying out a rescue operation, she ran to get her camera — a cheap Kodak Brownie that she had on her. There were only two frames left on a roll (and the film expired a year before, as it was discovered later), but this was enough to capture both the cabin dangling in the abyss and the drivers climbing onto the bridge.

Virginia sent the photograph to the Sacramento Bee newspaper, hoping to win $10 for the best picture of the week.
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Photo: Virginia Schau / AP Photo / East News

Virginia sent the photograph to the Sacramento Bee newspaper, hoping to win $10 for the best picture of the week. She did win it, and a year later she also received a Pulitzer Prize for Photography. It is interesting that Virginia Schau became the first woman to receive this award, and the second amateur photographer in the history of the Pulitzer.

The first Pulitzer given to a non-professional was awarded six years before that — for a photograph taken near the burning Winecoff hotel in Atlanta. The night fire of December 7, 1946 took 119 lives and is still considered one of the most devastating fires in US history. The 15th floor of the hotel, which the advertising said to be ‘completely fireproof’ had neither fire escape ladders nor fire exits. The ladders of the fire trucks could reach only the 8th floor, and the nets which were used to catch people who were jumping from higher floors were not strong enough and ripped under the weight of those who were trying to save themselves. Most of the people who lived on the high floors died, including the owner of the hotel who lived on the 14th floor suite with his wife.

Arnold phoned to the fire station, introduced himself as a journalist, and asked where the fire was. After he got the address, he grabbed his camera, took a cab, and ended up being the first photographer on the scene.

The author of the photograph, a 24-year-old PhD student from the Georgia Institute of Technology and devoted photography lover Arnold Hardy, lived nearby and was on his way back home from dancing that night. He acted quickly when he heard the sirens: phoned to the fire station, introduced himself as a journalist, and asked where the fire was. After he got the address, he grabbed his camera, took a cab, and ended up being the first photographer on the scene.

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Photo: Arnold Hardy / AP Photo / East News

One of the photographs taken by Hardy not only got him a Pulitzer, but also might have contributed to the changes in fire safety rules. The photograph shows a 41-year-old secretary Daisy McCumber who jumped from the 11th floor (it is known that she survived, although she had numerous fractures, and then did not confess even to her closest people that it is her in the famous photograph). Arnold sold exclusive rights to his photographs to the Associated Press for $300. The agency later offered him a job, but he turned it down and went into selling equipment for X-rays.

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