Barrett Swanson at The Point:
The first photo: a fireman, a woman, and a child wait on the top-floor landing of a fire escape. Smoke purls from the windows behind them. As the gallant-eyed fireman reaches for the approaching rescue ladder, the woman and girl hug one another, their faces wounded by fear. In the second photograph, the fire escape has buckled and detached from the building. The fireman dangles from the ladder while the woman clutches onto his legs, in the postural arrangement of trapeze swingers. The little girl is not anywhere in view. We see in the third photo that the fireman is safely on the ladder, but the woman and little girl are floating, halfway into their fall, arms and legs gravity-splayed. The woman’s expression is eerily serene, as if already resigned to her fate. The final photograph (above) shows the woman and girl suspended in mid-air, like Degas ballerinas; the girl faces the camera with her arms outstretched, her pajama bottoms inflated with the wind of her fall. The woman plummets headfirst, a hideous, limb-tangled descent into oblivion. The woman, a nineteen-year-old named Diana Bryant, died on impact, but her two-year-old goddaughter, Tiare Jones, landed on Bryant’s body and lived.
Originally published in 1975 in the Boston Herald and taken by Stanley Forman, who thought he was merely documenting some gawk-worthy scenes from a heroic rescue, the photographs are so expertly composed and nakedly harrowing that they resemble film stills from a Hollywood blockbuster. And despite its disquieting content, Forman’s work, known simply as “Fire Escape Collapse,” was reprinted in over four hundred U.S. newspapers.