Pulitzer Prize winner Jerry Gay returns to Edmonds roots for book signing

Jerry Gay, center, talks about his new book with customers at the Edmonds Bookshop Thursday night.
Gay's Pulitzer Prize-winning photo "Lull in the Battle."

It’s not too often that you have a chance to meet a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, let alone one with Edmonds roots, so My Edmonds News took the opportunity to chat with Jerry Gay when he appeared at the Edmonds Bookshop during last Thursday night’s Edmonds Art Walk.

Gay, who graduated from Edmonds High School in 1964, was there to sign copies of his new book, Seeing Reality: Humanity, Humility and Humor (a selection of Gay’s photos from that book are below). Following the visit, he graciously offered to participated in a Q&A that covered topics ranging from how he got his start in photography, to the history behind his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo of exhausted volunteer firefighters, to the inspiration for his current book.

Q: First, some background on you. I understand that you grew up in South Snohomish County and have ties to both Lynnwood and Edmonds. Tell me about your first experiences in photography at Lynnwood Junior High and Edmonds High School.

A: I grew up in Lynnwood during the ’50s and ’60s. I first started taking pictures when I was 11 or so and developed photographs at home in the basement. When I was in the 8th grade and Mr. Mudge’s class, I began reading books about photographers and the stories behind their pictures and subjects. These were the only books I turned in for my required book reports. Near the end of the school year, Mr. Mudge commented to me about my fixation and offered to see if there was a way I could use the now- vacated school darkroom the following year.

The darkroom was located in the art department area. Since the photography program had been terminated, the art teacher agreed to let me use the facility. Mr. Mudge told me to sign up for his class about airplanes and flying. I would then be free to go to the darkroom each week rather attend his class. I would be graded on my pictures.  In 9th grade, I took pictures all around school and put up shows in the hallway display cases.

At the end of the school year, Mr. Mudge drove up to Edmonds High School to meet Mr. Page, the yearbook adviser. After showing my pictures and with Mr. Mudge’s recommendations, I was allowed to be a yearbook photographer and avoid the customary sophomore limitation guideline.  I was then totally captivated with my photography efforts and the yearbook publishing process for three years. I graduated in 1964 with the dream of some day being a professional photographer.

Q: Did you study photography in college? How did you get your first photography job and where did you go after that?

A: I was married very soon after high school to Linn, a yearbook classmate. I was working full time at Grocery Boys (a Lynnwood grocery store chain). Still wanting to be a photographer, I went to Everett Community College. Although their program was very good, I wasn’t able to focus totally on photographic classes as others were required. With family commitments, a full-time job and school classes, I decided I needed to attend a photography school, and decided on the premier Brooks Institute of Photography in Santa Barbara, California.

I began working in the Seattle Heights Safeway store.  Since they were a nationwide chain I sensed I could probably transfer and work in a Safeway store near Brooks. I moved my family, found a Safeway job about 15 miles from the Brooks campus and began my schooling to obtain the basic “two year professional photography diploma.”

Upon completion, I moved my family back to Edmonds and in 1968 I began my career working on The Western Sun staff in Lynnwood. The Sun was a daily “zoned edition” of the Everett Herald to focus “local news” on South Snohomish County people and related news/feature/social/sports events.

I began winning recognition and awards for my pictures.  After two years, I was transferred to the Everett Herald staff.  I worked another two years and achieved the photo-department manager position in addition to being a photographer.  Many of our assignments took us to Seattle for major news and/or sporting events.  In time, my travels and award recognition became noticed by Jim Heckman, The Seattle Times picture editor.  After four years at the Herald, I went to The Seattle Times in 1972.

It became a customary profile for me work diligently at one paper and then move to another to have more photography experiences and really see America. I later worked for the Los Angeles Times, the Maui News, New York’s Newsday and St. Paul Pioneer Press. In the middle of this sojourn, I moved back to Seattle and created Picture Magazine.  For almost a year, I and my staff published photographically highlighted local feature and personality stories.  The magazine was distributed in all of the weekly newspapers in the Seattle area.

In the finale of my professional career, I began freelancing my photography to local and national corporations, non-profit organizations, colleges/universities and various publications and mass-media.

Q: Your photograph of firefighters won a 1975 Pulitzer Prize for the Seattle Times. Tell me the background behind that photograph.

I came to work one morning on the 7 a.m. shift at The Seattle Times.  Jim Heckman, the picture editor, handed me an assignment slip and said,  “Gay, there was a house fire last night in Burien. Go check it out.  If something more important comes up, I’ll call you on the radio.” Thank God, nothing else came up.  It was a fall overcast morning.  The house was near the Burien waterfront.  I parked near several fire trucks and then walked to where a house once stood and began photographing firemen taking walls down and securing the fire scene, preparing to leave. At one point four “volunteer” fire fighters sat down to rest and “get it together” because they would have to now go to work on their regular day jobs. I stood back and attempted to capture a scene where each man was in his own mental and emotional space.

I left and headed back to the paper in order to process my film and make prints to meet the deadline to be in today’s afternoon editions. I selected a scene from the firemen sitting together. They were wearing bunker jackets and the three men in front had their helmets off, and with the dense smoke in the background the picture looked to be soldiers in war scene. This is probably why the editors chose the title: “Lull In The Battle.”

At the end of each year, staff members are encouraged to select stories and pictures to be submitted to local and national newspaper competitions. In addition, I discovered winning recognition was the best recommendation for advancing my career.  For a week or more after my regular day shift, I would work late in the darkroom to prepare all of my entries.

On one particular night around midnight, I was printing the Burien firefighters. At one point, I heard a voice tell me, “This picture would be a good Pulitzer Prize entry.”  I was so convinced it wasn’t me, that I walked outside my darkroom to see if some else was there talking to me. There was no one there.

The next morning I asked Bonnie, our photo secretary, “How do we enter the Pulitzer completion?” Bonnie said the photography department had never done that; however, she would go The Seattle Times library and find out the details. Several hours later, I was handed an entry form. I prepared the Pulitzer Prize entry along with three to four other contest essential elements over the next couple of days. Jim signed the entry forms and I then mailed and officially submitted my 1974 pictures.  The rest is history.

Q: What inspired you to create your new book, “Seeing Reality”?

A: When I began doing stock photography, I was given an initial “start-up fee.”  The money was to be used to create new photographs to build my portfolio that would be offered to the agencies’ clients.  I decided that I wanted to see more of America up close and discover people and places I had never seen before. I planned to drive “down the middle” and go to our nation’s capitol while traveling rural highways and back roads, both coming and going. This way, I would be in small towns and rural areas where I could find the scenes, situations and people I wanted to capture on film.

My first trip proved so successful, I decided to travel two more summers to photograph situations all across America. “Washington State to Washington, D.C.:  Searching For The Heart of America” became the title of my personalized project. Over my three consecutive summer sojourns, I drove over 50,000 miles. I shot countless rolls of film capturing marvelous people, fascinating scenes and unusual situations.

Years had passed and I wanted to personally create a book to express my deepest feelings about the reality of the world we live in.  I spent two and a half years editing and reediting as well as printing and reprinting. Each new focus brought the manuscript through a great diversity of diverse perspectives.

Robert Fulghum, the nationally respected author of “Everything I Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” wanted to help in the process and write the foreword. He also suggested that I remove the photo captions to allow the reader to determine the meaning(s) of the pictures they were viewing. His assistance has proved invaluable.

After six to seven manuscript alterations, “Seeing Reality” is the title with my accompanying photographs and limited text to visually explore the theme without limitations. I self-published “Seeing Reality.” I couldn’t find a willing publisher during our time of intense financial restrictions and new computerized technological variables limiting traditional book store sales.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: Now, at age 64, I want to explore public speaking and sharing my book’s message verbally and visually. I am exploring focusing my words and pictures with selected audiences. One such perspective will be with senior citizen living and health care facilities. I want to encourage my senior counterparts to explore the pictures  they have created in their heart, mind and soul before they cross to the other side. The near-death experience reveals that each of us shares our visual perspectives before we pass to the other side. We do so when in the presence of our Creator, who tells us, “Show me what you have learned.” We know all of this from the sharing of those who have had the near-death experience and were sent back home to tell us what to expect when we leave this lifetime. In the end, we all go home to the same place but each of us brings different pictures with us.

  1. I just Googled your name to see if you are alive and found this wonderful interview. I had hoped you might be at the celebration of the life of my cousin Jeff Curtis at the Edmonds Library. He gave me a copy of The Road to Peace and also one of Everyone Has a Life to Live which you had autographed for my husband Paul and me. I am now 90 and trying to make a dent on the removal of stuff from my house.. Trying to think of what I’d take with me on a desert island (one-room facility) I decided on Poetry. So I re-read your books and here I have found a way to let you know How much I enjoy your ideas. I am glad that Jeff had you and Russ Johnson for friends, I always thought of his Dad as the Gay Philosopher and Jeff was much the same.

  2. Jerry,
    I, too, was reminded of your exceptional gift of photography when I came across a selection of photos you so beautifully created and presented to me in the spring of 2000.
    My boys, Dylan, and Dustin, were five and seven and Sophia was four months old.
    I recently moved to the Oregon coast, and the pictures surfaced after 23 years! The beauty and emotion these photos evoked brought tears to my motherly eyes!
    You also wrote a heartfelt letter and included it in the package.
    Sophia, now 23, googled your name, and this wonderful article came up. I plan to call the number on the letter and thank you personally and I truly hope it is still valid.
    I would like to thank you personally for this priceless gift of images of my children.
    With gratitude to you, Jerry,

    Julie Lord Jessum
    Cannon Beach, Oregon

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