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Sunday, July 18, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Prize Photos: Focusing On Six Images That Had Rare Impact

Seattle Times Staff Writer

------------------------------- -- The TNT special "Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs" airs at 8 tonight. Featured photos include, from top, Stanley J. Forman's "The Boston Fire," Slava Veder's "Returning POW," Robert H. Jackson's "Ruby Shoots Oswald" and Thomas J. Kelly's "Tragedy on Sanatoga Road." -------------------------------

In the blink of a shutter, photographic images can dig out emotions even the most finely honed prose can't capture. The best photos, six of which are featured at 8 p.m. tonight on the TNT special "Moment of Impact: Stories of the Pulitzer Prize Photographs," still trigger strong memories decades later.

Two of them, Robert H. Jackson's famous 1963 photo "Ruby Shoots Oswald" and Slava Veder's "Returning POW" from 1973, have been reprinted so many times, and in so many different contexts, that they've become historic and pop-culture fixtures.

In addition, some of the Pulitzer photo winners have set wheels of change in motion. The shocking "Attack on Johnny Bright," photos of vicious assaults on a black quarterback during a college game shot by John Robinson and Don Ultang in 1951, served a dual purpose. They exposed racial discrimination in sports and inspired regulatory changes in college football. Stanley J. Forman's famously shocking winner from 1976, "The Boston Fire," helped change fire codes around the world.

The photos have celebrated humanity in dire circumstances. "Rescue at Mantanzas Creek," the pictures of a young woman trapped in flood waters that won Annie Wells a Pulitzer in 1997, form a stunning portrait of heroism in the face of horror.

Sometimes, they just made us crumple. Thomas J. Kelly's tragic visual account of murder in a small town, "Tragedy on Sanatoga Road," is heart-rending.

Collectively, the Pulitzer Prize-winning photographs since 1942 run the gamut of emotions. Tonight's special takes six of these winners one step further, reconstructing the events that inspired the pictures.

Call it reality television with real value. Hosted by "Law & Order's" Sam Waterston, "Moment of Impact" makes gripping drama of news photography with the help of rolling footage. Each segment returns to the scene of the photograph and slowly builds to the moment of the prize-winning click. More often than not, the slim difference between taking a Pulitzer-worthy photograph and missing the shot entirely is a matter of chance.

It wasn't always easy for the journalists to return to the sites where these stories unfolded.

On one hand, they've been offered the chance to tell the tale of their moment of greatest achievement. Veder, in particular, relishes that opportunity. His photo, showing an American prisoner of war striding into the open arms of his family, is one of the few Pulitzer prize winners that captured joy. The special reunites Veder with his subjects, and the result is surprisingly emotional.

On the other, prior to the special, many never had returned to the place where the photos were shot - for good reason.

Kelly's pictures recorded an event he'd rather forget: It was the day his job as a photographer required him to chronicle the murderous rage of one of his neighbors, Richard Greist. In 1978 in Pottstown, Pa., Greist killed his wife and slashed his young daughter multiple times.

In order for Forman to shoot his winning photographs of a woman and child plummeting from a collapsed apartment fire escape, he had to put aside his shock. Artistically the photo is a master work. Emotionally, it's terrifying to see a woman in the last moment of her life. (The child survived.)

That's the rough part of being forever attached to these shots.

As peaceful images of children walking down a country road or laughing in a classroom flash across the scene, Kelly says with a bit of sadness, "I continually shoot pictures in this area and they're the type of pictures you wish you were rewarded for."

Then, the screen blazes with award-winning photo of a crazed Greist running from the police. "It's good to win the top photo prize in the world," he grimly admits, "but I wish it were for something else."

"Moment of Impact" isn't all sober grit. The six photographs it examines inspire a range of reactions and a variety of stories.

It also attempts to explore the photojournalist's complex role, albeit evenly. In Wells' story of photographing a teenage girl caught in the raging waters of a flooded creek, she recalls that the imperiled girl screamed at her to stop shooting.

"Sometimes, if somebody asks you not to take their picture, you won't (take the picture)," Wells said haltingly. "But this was a time when I couldn't . . . I had to do it."

Here's where filmmakers missed the opportunity to ask the rescue victim - Marglyn Paseka, who agreed to go on camera for the special - how she felt about being photographed as she stared down her death. It's a question newspaper readers often wonder about; to fail to address it is irresponsible.

But this is a small flaw in an otherwise well-made documentary about photojournalism's top honor. The revealing "Moment of Impact" is good television about great journalism.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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