April 16, 2009

Snapshot in History: Remembering the Exit in Photos

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When students left the Straight brandishing rifles after occupying the building, they were surrounded by hoards of administrators, policemen, students — and of course, photojournalists.
Those who took pictures of the historic exit captured a moment in time, a moment of excitement, action, fear and uncertainty. The Associated Press photo won the Pulitzer Prize.
“Although good pictures, none of these has, in the opinion of the jury, the major news value of the picture impact the First Place choice has,” wrote the jury board of the 1970 Pulitzer Prize.
Out of five stirring images — student violence, horrors of the Vietnam war, riots in Chicago — this photo, “Guns on Campus”, by AP photographer Steve Starr emerged as the winner of the 1970 Pulitzer prize in Spot/Breaking News Photography.
In a decade of protests and violence, many contended that a student protest hardly seemed newsworthy: the ’60s was packed with assassinations of JFK, MLK, Malcolm X, the often violent Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War. The photo of the takeover was chosen not for its depiction of the protest actions, but for “the extraordinary image of guns on the steps of a student union,” said Prof. Shirley Samuels, art history. “This protest was peaceful and political at once, armed nonviolent resistance.”
“[We chose this photo] [b]ecause the event marked one of the main turning points in a year of campus turmoil,” the jurors wrote. “The picture had major impact on later events because it was the first time that campus protesters were openly armed.”
The awarding of the Pulitzer Prize was a key factor in legitimizing the takeover, according to Skip Meade ’69, who was one of the students that took over the Straight. He credits the photo as the best depiction of the events, adding that the photograph attaches an unforgettable legacy to the takeover that cannot be obscured after the fact.
Another similar photo by Cornell Daily Sun photographer Brian W. Gray depicted a comparable image of armed African American protesters leaving Willard Straight Hall.
Why was the Associated Press photo chosen over the Sun photo for the Pulitzer Prize?
“The photograph that won the Pulitzer Prize did so over similar images by Cornellians because of its widespread circulation and use beyond Cornell and Ithaca as an Associated Press wire photo distributed nationally, if not internationally,” Prof. Cheryl Finley, art history, stated in an e-mail.
Even though it did not receive a Pulitzer Prize, The Sun’s photo is still considered extremely memorable. The photo is effective in that it captures a more panoramic view of the evaluation, including a full view of the Willard Straight Hall exit, as well as the “Welcome Parents” sign, adding ironic dark humor that intensifies the horrors of the Takeover.
However, more information can also obscure the focus. The oversized “Welcome Parents” sign reads like a headline, overpowering the armed students at first glance, and the guns merely accessorized the protesters as the emphasis was placed on the mob-like quality of the group. Campus riots were not new: in the same year, protests of similar scale happened at both Harvard and Berkeley. In fact, three of the five Pulitzer prize contestants that year were snapshots of student protests across the nation.
What made the Straight Takeover historical was the use of firearms, and the AP photo, appropriately titled “Guns on Campus,” focused exclusively on the sheer paralyzing fear brought by the sudden appearance of guns on a college campus. Everything else recedes in this image: several blurred students in the background appeared confused or nonchalant; the two fellow protests next to Eric Evans ’69 were facing the ground in relaxed postures, and the policeman and the administrator on the right were looking in the direction of the restless crowd instead of the camera. An armed student, instead of a banner, takes center stage. Amidst a field of chaos, Evans wasn’t running, screaming or holding up his fist; instead, he simply walked, heavily and calmly with militant stiffness, holding his chin and rifle high with a chilling grace.
Most strikingly, a dark strap of bullets capable of massacre slashes across the contrasting whiteness of his clothing. Even though his facial expressions are intelligible as his eyes retreated behind the glare of his glasses, his presence and what he represented were powerful and terrifying. It is the disturbing ease with which a deadly bullet strap wraps over a benign schoolboy sweater, the militant appearance of an Ivy League gentleman in a bullet vest instead of a bullet-proof vest, and the reality that armed violence had permeated from inner cities and the jungles of Vietnam to picturesque college campuses that saturated the image with fear and shock.
Brian W. Gray is now a senior partner at a law firm in Canada. Steve Starr was only 24 years old when he received the Pulitzer Prize. Since then, he became a Christian ministary photojournalist and still keeps contact with many of African American students in the takeover after all these years.
“For Steve, [the photograph] was not about blacks wanting equal treatment as much as a photo that told in shorthand the lengths students would go to get the attention of the administration,” his wife, Marilynne Starr, stated in an e-mail. “He wondered what the participants in the Cornell photo thought. Starr looked online and was amazed at what they had become,” she added.
“On our side at the AP state office we believed Cornell was an exploding story from ’68 [that foreshadowed] a steady progression of increasing violence. [This] is why we jumped on the story so hard the morning of the takeover,” stated Steve Starr in an e-mail to a student in the protest.
They were right. A year later, guns appeared again at Kent State’s campus on the very day Starr received his Pulitzer Prize. This time, four lives were taken.