Tragedy by the Sea – Pulitzer Prize Winning Photograph 1955

By John Gaunt, The Los Angeles Times

Technical Details
Camera: Rolleiflex
Film: Kodak 120 roll film
Lens: 80 mm
Shutter & Aperature: 1/250th @ f16

Nature is whimsical. The sky yields water to nurture life, and the earth and ocean produce food and the building materials of shelter; yet nature can turn and, with sudden turbulence, create tragedy that leaves behind only grief.

On April 2, 1954, nature played both roles. First it was a benevolent caretaker; but then, in an instant, it became a thoughtless menace.
John Gaunt, a staffer of the Los Angeles Times, was sitting in the delightful morning breeze that came off the Pacific, and filled his seaside house in Hermosa Beach, a suburb of Los Angeles. He was assigned to the night shift and would not be heading for the office until later in the afternoon. For the present, there was just the California sun, the ocean wind, and the crashing surf. It was a sweet, delightful morning.

Parents played on the beach with their children. Some lived in the area, and, like John, owned of rented homes along the beachfront. Others were day visitors.

Suddenly a commotion erupted the peaceful setting. Gaunt heard the shouts of neighbors – there was trouble on the beach. Without knowing what to expect, he took his camera and ran to see what was happening.

On the shore, with high, crashing surf as a backdrop, stood a young couple, Mr. and Mrs. John McDonald. As they moved forward, then back, clinging to one another, their body language told Gaunt a story that tightened his stomach. He realized that someone must be lost and he took a photograph from two-hundred feet away. Only then did he learn that just moments before, the couple’s nineteenth-month-old son, Michael had been playing along the shoreline. The surf, suddenly aggressive, reached out and took the child from the shallows. Despite the back-and-forth efforts of the helpless parents, there was nothing to do but wait. Later in the day, the child’s body was found on the beach a mile away.

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