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Obituaries

John L. Gaunt Jr., 83; Times photographer

October 27, 2007|Jon Thurber | Times Staff Writer

John L. Gaunt Jr., a retired Los Angeles Times photographer who was awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1955 for his picture of a young couple standing by the ocean moments after their young son had been pulled out to sea, died Friday. He was 83.

Gaunt died of congestive heart failure at a hospice in Desert Hot Springs, his daughter Jane said.

The photographer was at his beachfront home in Hermosa Beach the morning of April 2, 1954, when he heard a neighbor shout, "Something's happening on the beach!" Gaunt grabbed his Rolliflex camera and headed toward the shoreline.

When he arrived, he saw a young couple standing near the water clutching each other. Their 19-month-old son had wandered into the surf and drowned.

Gaunt's photograph appeared on the front page of The Times the next morning.

In awarding Gaunt the prize, the Pulitzer committee called the photograph, titled "Tragedy by the Sea," "poignant and profoundly moving." The Pulitzer awarded to Gaunt was the third in the history of the paper, which now has a total of 38.

Gaunt's photograph also won an Associated Press Managing Editor's Award and a prize from the California-Nevada Associated Press.

His daughter recalled Friday that despite the acclaim, "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.

Gaunt was born June 4, 1924, in Syracuse, N.Y. His father was a stockbroker and the Gaunts moved to Southern California when John, an only child, was an infant.

He grew up in Hermosa Beach and graduated from Redondo Union High School, where he worked on the school newspaper and contributed photographs to the Daily Breeze.

According to his daughter, he served in the Army Air Forces as a pilot during World War II. After the war, he went to Compton College and USC, where he graduated with a degree in zoology. After a brief foray in medical school, he again took up the camera and started working for The Times in October 1950.

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 Friday.

"We were just talking about it the other night," she said, noting that if he had still been working, he would have wanted to be out covering the blazes that devastated Southern California this week.

Gaunt retired in 1988, and he and his wife, Mary Elise, moved to Lincoln City, a spot on the Oregon coast that the couple said reminded them of the then-sleepy community of Hermosa Beach in the 1930s and '40s. Mary Elise, whom Gaunt had known since childhood and married in the late 1940s, died in 1996 at age 74.

He is survived by their two daughters, Jane of Yucca Valley and Abigail of Cleveland.

Memorial services will be private.

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jon.thurber@latimes.com

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