After 35 years, news photo still resonates

Fire Escape Collapse, a photo taken by Stanley Forman on July 22, 1975, won the Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography in 1976. (Photo by Stanley Forman. Reproduced with permission from Stanley Forman, www.stanleyforman.com. ©)

An apartment fire broke out in Boston in July, 1975, and Stanley Forman was there to capture the event on film. One of the images Forman snapped that day raises questions that are still hard to answer, even after more than 35 years.

Forman called his image Fire Escape Collapse. It depicts a 19-year-old woman and her 2-year-old goddaughter in free-fall after the fire escape they were using broke away from the building.

Forman was employed at the time by the Boston Herald American. That paper published Forman’s image on Page 1 the next morning, and the image subsequently appeared in more than a hundred other newspapers, according to Louis P. Masur in his book “The Soiling of Old Glory: the Story of a Photograph that Shocked America.”

The fire was on Marlborough Street in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood. Masur’s book described the scene: “A fire truck rolled down the alley, its ladder extended. Forman climbed onto the bed of the truck, which gave him some elevation and a better angle.” The fire escape collapsed “just as the ladder came within reach,” Masur’s book said. Forman kept shooting as the woman and the girl fell. “He took one last shot and looked away as the bodies hit with a thud.” The woman died, but the child survived the fall.

The controversy and its outcome

The questions — and the controversy — surrounding this picture are about whether it’s OK to publish a picture of a person who is about to die.

In a 2005 interview published by BBC News, Forman said, “I was never bothered by the controversy. When you think about it, I don’t think it was that horrific. The woman at the time was not deceased; we didn’t show a dead person on the front page. She did die, which is a horrible thing.”

In a phone interview, Masur said that the editorial staff of the Boston Herald American probably didn’t think about the consequences when they decided to publish the image — they just knew they had a great image on their hands. But in the days that followed the photo’s release, the paper was accused of taking advantage of a private moment. “The main issue is one of voyeruism,” Masur said. The image was shocking because it “captured someone in the throes of dying. That remains a certain type of taboo in American journalism.”

The immediate reaction was mostly negative. In an essay about the photographs, Nora Ephron cited examples of reader comments at the time. One reader called it “cheap sensationalism.” Another called it “a tawdry way to sell newspapers.”

However, a sizable number of readers supported the decision to publish the image. In an email, Forman referred to a poll published by Thomas Keevil of the Costa Mesa (California) Daily Pilot, in which readers voted 60 to 40 in favor of running the image.

Forman’s Web site says that the publication of the image ultimately had a positive effect, because it “led to the passage of new fire escape legislation across the country.”

The photo

Masur said there was something “macabre but beautiful about how the whole scene was framed. There aren’t many photos that capture that kind of moment.”

Tom Beck, chief curator at the Albin O. Kuhn Library & Gallery at UMBC, said that the photo represents an era that “was the pinnacle of photojournalism in many respects.” Beck said, “It’s kind of like a mirror in that we can see ourself in that picture. You can imagine what it must feel like to be falling… that’s a powerful way to relate to a photo.”

Listen to Beck describe the image

Note: See the Credits page for attribution for the loudspeaker symbol used on this page.

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