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Kathy Fiscus swing - A picture worth 100 newspapers

Kathy Fiscus swing – A picture worth 100 newspapers

April 8, 1949: Swing that Kathy Fiscus liked to play on near site where she fell down an abandoned well.

This photo by Leigh Wiener moved on the Associated Press wire. Published in over 100 newspapers, the image helped launch Wiener’s career.

In the early 1980s, Wiener’s column, “A Photographer’s Eye” appeared in the Los Angeles Times Sunday Calendar section. His June 20, 1982, column reported on the above image and the Kathy Fiscus tragedy:

A question often asked of me by amateurs, other professionals and even non-photographers was put to me by industrial designer Henry Dreyfus. “Did any single assignment either establish you or launch your career?”

I have given that question a lot of thought and would like to think not, because I feel that a photographer should be judged by a body of work, not by one or two pictures. However, the fact is that after the publication of one particular photograph, I did receive a rash of requests to work for publications that had never called before.

April 8, 1949, was a quiet Friday in Southern California. In San Marino, four kids were playing in a field with their dog, Jeeb. At about 4:15 p.m., one of the children disappeared. She had fallen down an abandoned well, only 14 inches wide, and was wedged 97 feet below the ground, crying for help.

By 7:30, the plight of 3 1/2-year-old Kathy Fiscus had captured the attention of the world. Hundreds of reporters, photographers and television crews were converging on that 14-inch well hole along with rescue teams and their equipment. Twentieth Century-Fox sent Klieg lights to the scene so rescue efforts could continue into the night. For the first time in its history, the London Times held up an edition, waiting to report the fate of the trapped child.

I called Dick Strobel, bureau chief for the Associated Press in Los Angeles, and told him I was going to the scene. He told me that he already had five men covering the story but that I could send anything I shot in to the AP with their courier.

When I arrived at 8, the scene of tragedy looked like a carnival in full swing. In addition to almost 300 news people, there were about 2,000 onlookers. Vendors were peddling their ice cream and coffee and sandwiches. Police were having an impossible time trying to separate the gawkers from rescue workers. A sheriff’s deputy was telling anyone who would listen that they wouldn’t reach the girl for two days. Some firemen said they’d have her out in five or six hours. There was much confusion, but little of substance to photograph.

I left, and carrying my 4×5 Speed Graphic and case with 26 film holders and some No. 5 flashbulbs, walked a block to the Fiscus home. Sitting on the front steps were Gus Lyon, 5, his brother Stanley, 9, and Kathy’s 9-year-old sister, Barbara. Kathy’s dog, Jeeb, was sitting on Barbara’s lap. These were the kids Kathy had been playing with.

Introducing myself, I asked if I might take their picture. Without a trace of self-consciousness and almost in unison, they said, “Sure.” I did. And then we talked about Kathy, the afternoon and her falling into the well.

Gus asked me if he could have the four burned out flashbulbs I had just used. I gave them to him. Now he wanted to show me the swing that he and Kathy used when they were playing together. I followed Gus, Barbara, Stanley and Jeeb to the rear yard. From a tree hung the swing. Near it were other tools of play, a wheeled hobby horse and an old tire casing. The scene was simple. No confusion.

I put the camera on an orange crate and made six time exposures, varying in length from 10 to 30 seconds. Stanley told me that he wanted to take pictures when he grew up.

Returning to the scene of activity, I found more confusion. An argument had broken out between the rescuers as to the best way to reach the girl. It was almost midnight. They were now going to try a new plan to save Kathy Fiscus. Locating the AP courier, I gave him my exposed film of the children and the swing. The initial excitement and confusion was now settling into a frustrating wait. A few people left. Many more arrived. We all waited. Saturday. Saturday night. Sunday morning. Noon.

At 10 p.m. Sunday, word spread that the rescue team of Whitey Blickensderfer and O.A. Kelly had reached the girl. Kathy Fiscus was dead. Thirty minutes later, some 350 photographers focused their camera on the same rusty caisson. They all fired their shutters at almost the same time to record Kelly emerging from the pipe bearing the lifeless form of a 3 1/2-year-old girl.

Back in the offices of the AP, Strobel, not a man of many words, told me to go home and get some sleep. “Incidentally,” he continued, “your picture of the kid’s swing has run in over a hundred papers throughout the world.”

Wiener went on to work as a staff photographer at the Los Angeles Times. After The Times, he freelanced with clients  including Life, Time, Fortune and Sports Illustrated. Wiener died in 1993.

I personally knew Wiener, taking a class he taught through the UCLA Extension program. We also served on the board of the Press Photographers Association of Greater Los Angeles.

For more on Leigh Wiener, check out this website: The Photography of Leigh Wiener.

In April 1951, Leigh Wiener revisited the site of the Kathy Fiscus tragedy and took this image of  the swing.

March 1983: Leigh Wiener teaching his class at UCLA Extension. Credit: Scott Harrison/Los Angeles Times.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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1 Comment

  1. October 10, 2015, 1:18 pm

    Don't listen to the respondent who claimed that it was now "free" because they could print it–THEY don't know how this works. You've done the right thing by putting a water mark on it. Also, considering that it's just a simple picture of the original it's not nearly high enough quality of a photo to make a decent print of it. You have nothing to worry about in regards to that.

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