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Any number of a hundred or more iconic and influential images could fill this list, but I've narrowed down 10 photographs that I consider to be among the absolute most iconic photos ever taken. Some depict great heroism or great tragedy. Some depict death. Some of these photographs are iconic because they depict pinnacle moments in world history or because their subjects have become a symbol for various cultural movements. Whether candid or posed, well-framed or haphazardly captured, these photos have withstood the test of time, exist as tangible examples as to how to become a famous photographer, and have been characterized as some of the most iconic photographs in world history.
Without a doubt one of the most poignant and iconic photographs ever taken, this photo portrays an unknown Chinese citizen, known only as "Tank Man," standing up to a line of oncoming tanks in the midst of the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests. The man repeatedly shifted his position in order to block the tanks' path until he was pulled back into the crowd by two unknown figures. Eyewitnesses claim that Tank Man wasn't the only protester to stand in the way of oncoming government vehicles, but he was evidently the only one to be caught on photo and video by the numerous news organizations covering the protests. Today, this photo remains largely unknown inside China.
Migrant Mother is an iconic image of the Great Depression, and one of the most iconic photos of all time. The photograph, taken by Dorothea Lange, depicts a woman of Cherokee descent struggling to care for her seven children in what is now Oklahoma. Unlike the subjects of many of the other photographs on this list, the identity of the migrant mother is known, and she has commented on the 1936 photograph. The pictured woman, Florence Owens Thompson, lived until 1983, when she passed away at the age of 80.
This photo, officially titled Guerrillero Heroico, is the source of one of the most widespread portraits of all time, that of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. Cuban photographer Alberto Korda took the photo in 1960 at a memorial service for victims of the La Coubre explosion in Havana, Cuba. Korda, a supporter of the Cuban Revolution, did not claim any royalties on the photograph, in the hopes that it would encourage the distribution of Guevara's portrait and, by proxy, Geuvara's message. Korda seems to have been quite successful in this regard, as the portrait is believed to be the most reproduced photograph of all time.
The Magnificent Eleven
Robert Capa was certainly one of the most famous photographers of all time, traveling to dangerous locales to capture images of war from the front lines. Many of his photographs deservedly rank among the most iconic photos of all time. Perhaps his best known works are part of a collection known as the Magnificent Eleven, which Capa took while storming Omaha Beach with American forces during D-Day. Under heavy German fire, Capa took over 100 photos of the battle. Unfortunately, a processing accident at the Life magazine photo lab destroyed all but eleven of these photographs.
The Falling Man
The Falling Man is a series of photos by photographer Richard Drew, who captured the descent of an unidentified man falling from the World Trade Center during the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001. While the identity of the man remains unknown, this powerful photograph has come to represent the estimated 200 people who jumped or fell from the towers on 9/11, as well as the nearly 3,000 lives that were lost on that day.
The Vulture and the Little Girl
Some of the most iconic photos in the world have gained their status because of their ability to capture great tragedy. Such is the case with this photo, commonly titled The Vulture and the Little Girl, which depicts the severe famine in South Sudan in the early 1990s. The starving Sudanese child in the photo is actually a boy, who was reportedly trying to reach a United Nations feeding center in South Sudan in 1993. Photographer Kevin Carter committed suicide less than a year after taking this photo, leaving behind a suicide note describing how he was haunted by the memories of the tragedies he'd witnessed. The boy in the photograph was taken care of at the UN food station, but ultimately died of illness in 2007.
The Fall of Daisy McCumber
In December 1946, a fire broke out at the Winekoff Hotel in Atlanta, Georgia. In true Titanic fashion, the building was advertised as "absolutely fireproof." As it turns out, this fireproof designation referred only to the steel external structure (which still stands today). Not only was the interior of the hotel highly flammable, but there were insufficient exits and emergency arrangements (such as a lack of a fire escape), leading to the deadliest hotel fire in United States History. This photograph, captured by Georgia Tech student and amateur photographer Arnold Hardy, depicts the fall of a woman named Daisy McCumber who, like dozens of other hotel guests, jumped out her window in the absence of any other escape route. Unlike 32 others who jumped or fell off the hotel, McCumber survived her fall, and the photograph won the 1947 Pulitzer Prize for Photography.
Marilyn Monroe's entire life has become an icon of vintage Americana, and her sultry appeal is perfectly encapsulated in this often-reproduced image that has become one of the most iconic photos of all time. The photo was staged to promote a film titled The Seven-Year Itch, which starred Monroe. Interestingly, photographer Sam Shaw met Monroe before she was famous. In fact, Monroe was hired as Shaw's driver for a time, as he didn't have a license. Their collaboration in this staged photograph marks a high point in both of their careers, a stark difference from her last photoshoot.
Execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém
This powerful photo depicts a grim scene from the Vietnam War: Brigadier General Nguyễn Ngọc Loan, the Chief of Police in South Vietnam, summarily executed a Vietcong soldier named Nguyễn Văn Lém who was captured during the Tet Offensive. The photo subsequently became an iconic image for the anti-war movement in the United States. The backlash against Loan later caused photographer Eddie Adams to apologize to the General for what he saw as undue criticism.
V-J Day in Times Square
One of the most iconic photos of the 20th century, and perhaps one of the most iconic American photographs of all time, this picture depicts the impromptu kiss between a sailor in the US Navy and an American woman (possibly a nurse) in Times Square as the nation celebrated Japan's surrender in 1945. This surrender effectively brought World War II to an end, bringing a huge sigh of relief over the United States—especially its soldiers. Many have claimed to be the subjects of the photo, but the true identities of the sailor and the woman captured by Alfred Eisenstaedt remain unknown.