By: Mark Fitzgerald
Furniture salesman recalls how his dramatic Pulitzer-Prize winnign photo six years ago saved the life of a family sp.
EVERY PULITZER PRIZE winner hopes his or her work makes a difference.
But Ron Olshwanger knows for certain the impact of his dramatic photo of a fireman giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to a child pulled from a burning building. That photo saved a family’s life.
Olshwanger was the surprise 1989 winner for spot-news photography ? a co-owner of a wholesale furniture showroom in St. Louis who won for the first photo he ever had published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
At the time, the unassuming Olshwanger expressed the hope that the photograph would encourage people to install smoke detectors or keep the batteries fresh in the ones they have.
“I feel the picture will help save lives,” he said at the time he won.
And that, he says six years later, is exactly what happened.
About six months after the picture was published nationwide when the Pulitzers were announced, Olshwanger got a phone call from an architect in upstate New York.
The man explained that he had designed and built his dream house about a year before ? and was determined that he was not going to have its elegant interior marred by unsightly smoke detectors.
Though his wife argued vehemently for the devices, the architect was determined ? and eventually got his way.
After the couple had been living in the house for a few weeks, however, the wife saw Olshwanger’s photo on the front page of a newspaper. She stuck it on the refrigerator door and did not say another word.
“The man said to me, ‘I looked at that child and realized it could be my family. I went out that day, and I got smoke detectors. And then, about eight months later, we had a sudden fire. Your picture saved our lives.’ That really got to me,” Olshwanger said.
Six years after winning his Pulitzer, Olshwanger is still an amateur photographer. He is co-owner of the MMI wholesale furniture showroom in St. Louis, a director of the suburban Creve Coeur Fire District and a member of the district’s 911 emergency service.
Olshwager was the first amateur in more than three decades to win a Pulitzer for photography, according to records. Pulitzer spokesman Fred Knubel said files show the 1954 photography prize was awarded to a woman identified as Mrs. Walter M. Schau, who won for a picture of a truck accident.
However, photography ? of a very special kind ? is his first love, Olshwanger says.
“I kind of specialize . . . in shooting fires, disasters and homicides,” he said.
Olshwanger’s work is widely published in medical journals, textbooks for paramedics, and special interest magazines, such as Firehouse.
Since receiving his Pulitzer, he has had numerous other photos picked up by the Post-Dispatch ? although he reveals a bit of irritation over the shots the newspaper turns down.
“From time to time, I’ll give them a homicide shot if it’s not too exceptionally graphic. Sometimes they’ll say, Well, we can’t use this. However, if you look at the nightly news, you can see people decapitated and whatnot,” Olshwanger said.
“I like to shoot firefighters and paramedics,” he added. “Their faces show the stress they’re working under. And with homicides, you realize these are human beings. No matter what they’ve done, they are human.”
If Olshwanger’s philosophy of photography is well developed, his techniques remain determinedly amateur. He travels everywhere with the same Minolta X-700 he has had for years.
“I keep it on the automatic setting, so I don’t have to fool around with lighting. I do do my own focusing, though,” Olshwanger says.
But not his own developing: All pictures go to his local Fox Photo one-hour developer.
Ironically, the Pulitzer Prize made Olshwanger famous not only for the photograph he snapped ? but also for a photo the Post-Dispatch took of him.
When the Pulitzers were announced, Olshwanger and his wife, Sally, who died recently, were summoned to the office of then-managing editor David Lipman to celebrate.
“They had a lot of champagne all around, and I said I’d rather have a Diet Coke,” Olshwanger recalled.
J.B. Forbes, then the assistant director of photography and now the photo editor, took the picture of the couple seated near a glass table, with the can of Diet Coke soda placed on it.
When the picture appeared on the next day’s front page, however, the Diet Coke can was gone.
It had been electronically airbrushed out of the picture, using the paper’s brand-new Scitex imaging system by Robert C. Holt III, then the director of photo technology.
The disappearing Diet Coke can became the most famous example in the newspaper industry of the ethical dangers of systems that can seamlessly alter images.
Holt ? who, ironically, at the time was known as an outspoken opponent of altering news photos ? publicly chastised himself for the “dumb thing” he had done.
Several years later, Holt, now an executive with Scitex, told the Rochester Institute of Technology magazine, Image World, that, painful though it had been for him, the incident was a good wake-up call for newspapers.
Olshwager himself said he found the whole episode “kind of comical.”
“Coca-Cola sent me a certificate for five or six cases of Diet Coke because of all the publicity they got out of it,” he said.
And, just last summer, browsing through a bookstore, he came across the Diet Coke photo in a journalism text.
?(Olshwanger’s Pulitzer Prize-winning photo) [Photo]
?(The MMI wholesale furniture showroom of which Olshwanger is co-owner) [Photo & Caption]
?(“From time to time, I’ll give them a homicide shot if it’s not tooexceptionally graphic. Sometimes they’ll say, Well, we can’t use this. However, if you look at the nighly news, you can see people decapitated and whatnot.”)[Caption]
?(Ron Olshaner, furniture store owner and part-time photographer, who won the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for spot news photography.) [Photo]