On the morning of April 2, 1954, Los Angeles Times photographer John Gaunt was lounging in the front yard of his beachfront home in Hermosa Beach when he heard a neighbor shout, “Something’s happening on the beach!” Instinctively, Gaunt grabbed his Rolleiflex camera and rushed over to see a horrified couple clutching each other.
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.
The photograph entitled “Tragedy by the Sea” appeared on the front page of The Times the next day. The image won the 1955 Pulitzer Prize for press photography; the Pulitzer committee called the photo “poignant and profoundly moving.” But for Gaunt, the image was hard to bear at first, his daughter recalled in Gaunt’s 2007 Times obituary by staff writer Jon Thurber:
”…the image was hard for him to bear at first.” She noted that he was just 31 when he took the photograph and had a 3-year-old daughter at home. The couple in the photograph lived locally and, although Gaunt did not know them, he knew people who did…
In his years at the paper, Gaunt, who was known as Jack, worked primarily as the nightside news photographer, coming in at 3 or 4 p.m. and staying past midnight. He particularly relished the challenge of covering fires, his daughter recalled…
The June 1955 Times employee publication Among Ourselves reported on how Gaunt heard the May 2, 1955, news:
Notified of the Pulitzer award by Reporter Ted Sell, who had spotted it on the teletype, Gaunt’s first reaction was: “Gosh, fellas–I have to sit down.” He’d been printing pictures in the Editorial photo lab when Sell brought him the news. Jack was unbelieving at first, and wanted to see the wire copy himself.
Moments later, Editor L.D. Hotchkiss and City Editor Bud Lewis marched in to shower him with official congratulations. Most of the Editorial Department was there, too. Amidst all the hullabaloo, Jack announced calmly: “I’m ill in my interior.”
(Photo credit: John Gaunt / Los Angeles Times).