EVERETT, Wash. — On Oct. 11, 1974, Jerry Gay walked into The Seattle Times newsroom and was asked by picture editor Jim Heckman to check on an overnight house fire in Burien, Washington, though it was likely out.
Gay found a smoky scene with four exhausted volunteer firefighters resting on a hillside, made a few frames and returned to the paper.
“When I saw these four guys, it said so much.”
The paper called it “Lull in the Battle.”
Known for his dramatic, high-contrast prints, Gay says “a voice on the inside” told him he had something special.
The old presses did not reproduce photos well. “I wanted the prints to jump out, with detail.” He extensively used potassium ferrocyanide to bleach detail into dark areas.
The photo won the Pulitzer Prize — and Gay is the only photographer in the history of The Seattle Times to be awarded it. He says, “it’s the Academy Award of Journalism.”
The Seattle Times was his third newspaper job.
The Pulitzer Prize opened many opportunities. Known for his work — runner-up newspaper photographer of the year, president of the National Press Photographers Association — he moved to the Los Angeles Times, The Maui News, St. Paul Pioneer Press and four other papers.
He produced “Picture Magazine,” a regional monthly inserted into papers and sold at newsstands. It lasted about two years.
He never stayed long enough to be vested in any company pension plan.
“I wanted to see more and took three summers to cross America, taking photographs — no photo assignments.” He made it to all the Lower 48 states, listening to The Moody Blues and John Lennon.
The retired 71-year-old now lives in Everett, Washington. This comes after three marriages, four live-in relationships and bankruptcy.
“It prepared me to not judge others.”
He is a full-time caregiver to a 90-year-old, who provides a living space.
He still has no digital cameras, never moving beyond film. Gay remains an analog person. “I live very simply.”
He feeds his neighborhood pigeons twice a day, collecting the feathers they drop and placing them into the crevices on a defunct power pole in Everett.
It’s become a spontaneous street-art project with more than 300 feathers.
“It’s my way of honoring nature.”