Caroline Valenta, a trail-blazing woman newspaper photographer and Pulitzer-Prize nominee, who once photographed herself giving birth, died February 20, 2013 at the Westhampton Care Center, Westhampton. She was 88 and had been battling pancreatic cancer for the past three years. Born in 1924 in the small south-central Texas city of Shiner, she left the University of Houston near the end of her senior year in 1945 to work for the morning daily The Houston Post as a full-time staff photographer. Ms. Valenta, already employed part-time by the paper, was told by the managing editor that she had to choose between taking an assignment for the paper or taking a final exam (the schedules of which conflicted) or be fired. She chose the job. Her starting salary was $25 per week. She was the Post’s first woman staff photographer and the only woman in the photo department.
Ms. Valenta began her career at a time when women were discouraged from covering “hard” news and if employed at all, were encouraged to limit themselves to “society” news or the “women’s pages.” Within six months she had taken photographs that won her national acclaim. One, a news photo she took in October, 1945, two months after the end of WWII, entitled, Daddy, Daddy, Daddy — First Lieut. Earl Pizzo, just back from a year’s duty in China being greeted at Union station by his three-and-a-half-year-old son, two-year-old daughter and wife — was picked up by the Associated Press wire service and appeared in more than a thousand newspapers worldwide. It captures the joy of a soldier’s reunion with his family, even if his young children don’t quite remember him. “Daddy, Daddy” was chosen by Edward Steichen along with another of Valenta’s news photos for The Exact Instant, Events and Faces in 100 Years of News Photography, an exhibition of photography at The Museum of Modern Art in NYC in 1949.
In 1947 Ms. Valenta garnered worldwide recognition for a series of pictures she took of the Texas City disaster, the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history. The SS Grandcamp, a liberty ship filled with approximately 2,300 tons of ammonium nitrate, caught fire and burned dockside for more than an hour before finally exploding with the force of a small atom bomb. Destroying a wide swath of the Port of Texas City, on the Gulf of Mexico, the fires and explosions killed at least 581 people, including all but one member of the Texas City fire department and injured 8,485 more, some of them severely. The tremendous blast leveled nearly 1,000 buildings on land and sent a 15-foot wave that was detectable nearly 100 miles off the Texas shoreline. Ms. Valenta, in Houston 50 miles away when the initial explosion occurred, rushed to the scene in her 1929 Model A Ford (mileage 272,000) — being waved through roadblocks by police and emergency personnel who recognized her car — with just seven film holders for her boxy, 9-pound Speed Graphic camera. That meant she could take no more than 14 exposures. She arrived at the disaster while smaller explosions caused by the first massive blast were still occurring and poisonous gas flooded the area. The resulting images were reproduced throughout the world and one, of the skeleton of the Monsanto Chemical plant, was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize. Life magazine ran that photo as the lead picture in a multiple-page spread. Her iconic image of Texas City was included in the book Great News Photos and the Stories Behind Them by John Faber, a history of the world’s greatest news photos. She considered it her greatest professional accomplishment and once said, “I don’t think I’d trade the (Texas City) experience for anything in the world. Maybe more time. But that would be it, if that. I felt really alive while walking among all those dead bodies. I was glad it wasn’t me lying out there..” She was
Ms. Valenta covered hundreds of accidents, crimes, fires, grisly murders and disasters as well as heart-warming “human interest” stories and celebrity features while working 80-hour weeks for years in Houston, a 24-hour-a-day, rapidly-growing, wide-open industrial city. Competing photographers at The Houston Chronicle and The Houston Press, both afternoon newspapers, nicknamed Valenta “‘ol blood ’n’ guts” because she once picked up a man’s brains while helping some ambulance workers who were scrambling to pick up the pieces of two men killed in a catastrophic fuel-truck explosion. A colleague once introduced her as “the gal who would charge Hell with a bucket of water.”
She also worked extensively all over the United States while on assignment for the leading newsweeklies of the era such as Life magazine, Time, Look, Fortune, Ebony and smaller-circulation magazines.
Ms. Valenta moved to New York City in 1952 with her husband, where she continued to work professionally for the New York Daily News and news magazines while raising seven children. In 1957 she photographed the birth of her daughter Lillie, while giving birth, by holding her Rolleiflex Twin-Reflex camera upside down and looking up at the viewfinder to compose her pictures. The contact sheet of nine square, 120mm images showing the progress of the baby’s birth is riveting.
While on assignment, she photographed many notables such as future President Lyndon Baines Johnson, the Duke of Windsor (who photographed her in turn), Bob Hope, Frank Sinatra, bandleader Woody Herman, former Vice President John Nance Garner, aviator Charles Lindbergh, architects Frank Lloyd Wright and Phillip Johnson, golfing great Ben Hogan and baseball’s enfant terrible Billie Martin and Hall of Fame superstar Stan Musial.
She is survived by all seven of her children: Dr. Caroline V. Gatewood of Hampton Bays, NY, Grover V. Gatewood of Bridgehampton, NY, Gloria V. Gatewood Russo of Sayville, NY, Lillie V. Gatewood of Greenvale, NY, John V. Gatewood of Oakland, CA, Rosabelle V. Gatewood Naleski of Southold, NY, William W. Gatewood of Grayslake, IL; two stepchildren, Boyd Gatewood of San Jose, CA, Louise Gatewood Horton of Houston, TX; eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild. Her husband, Worth Gatewood, a well-known newspaperman and former Sunday Editor of the NY Daily News, died in 1998.
A service was held at the Robertaccio Funeral Home, Patchogue, Tuesday, Feb. 26. Ms. Valenta’s ashes will be spread upon the waters of Matagorda Bay at the ghost town Indianola, TX. A book and exhibition about her life and ground-breaking career is planned.