While an average photograph is worth one thousand words, the more famous among them often elicit entire books. The historical context is just as important to the visual composition of a photograph because without knowledge of the history and context—images fail to reach a cultural significance. Life Magazine's compilation of the most famous photographs of all time is 100 pictures long and is a time suck—stay tuned for a concentrated collection. For each of the images featured, pay special attention to the year and greater social movement the image captures.
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper
What would be considered a pending lawsuit by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) today, was partly the norm during the early 20th century. Although the photo was taken as a part of a publicity stunt in 1932, it has stood the test of time as a depiction of life in early America. The photo intended to capture optimism of workers following the Great Depression. Featured on newspapers, this photo of workers lunch on a beam of an unfinished Rockefeller Center symbolized a bright future for the United States.
This iconic image of Florence Owens Thompson and her children in 1936 in Nipomo, California was taken by Dorothea Lange. Contrary to the symbolism portrayed by the last picture, this photo came to symbolize the plight of farm workers during the Great Depression.
Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare
While master photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson has thousands of great photographs, Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare is arguably among the most recognized. The two characteristics that cemented Cartier-Bresson's legacy are his photographs timing and composition. The moment frozen in time during 1932 of a man suspended in air represents "the decisive moment."
The Falling Solider
Taken during the Spanish Civil War, it depicts the death of a solider named Federico Borrel Garcia. Robert Capa captured this moment in 1936 by sticking his camera out of a trench and clicked the camera without even looking. Whether sensationalizing or depicting the gruesome nature of war, this photograph influenced many later photographers in war zones such as WWII and the Vietnam War.
This photograph, taken in 1941, captured Churchill before he cemented his legacy as the man who saved Britain from destruction in WWII. It also helped launch the career of photographer Yousuf Karsh. The Economist claims Karsh's work is the "most reproduced portrait in the history of photography," and it's easy to tell why. The black and white composition beautifully captures Churchill posture and facial expression—which express the emotions of a man who is facing destruction by a unrelenting enemy.
Mushroom Cloud Over Nagasaki
On August 8th of 1945, the world crossed a point of no return. The atomic bomb Fat Man dropped on Nagasaki and forever changed the world political dynamic. This photograph taken by Lieutenant Charles Levy captures the cataclysmic destruction of Nagasaki and the instantaneous death of 70,000 Japanese people. Nuclear politics has and will continue be a major threat to the future of earth. Robert Oppenheimer, leading nuclear physicist who developed the US nuclear program during WWII, did not like the end results of his work saying, “Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima
The victory at Iwo Jima signified a turning point in the war for the United States in WWII. Joe Rosenthal transmitted the victory to the world by capturing this perfect moment in 1945. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima has been reprinted by numerous publications and received a Pulitzer Prize. This image of war is strictly a propaganda piece, in that it only shows the successful end result of a campaign, not the countless lives lost and suffering endured by soldiers.
V-J Day in Times Square
Marking the joyous celebration following the victory of WWII, Alfred Eisenstaedt captured the euphoria felt by the US in 1945 with this picture. Sailor George Mendonsa planted a kiss on a complete stranger in Times Square, 21-year-old Greta Zimmer, and the two departed ways. What would be considered rather uncouth today, the image proliferated through American culture because of its link to post-war American prosperity.
By the time Arthur Sasse captured this photograph, Albert Einstein was basking in the glory of being the smartest man in the world. His seminal achievement is his theory of relativity, which eventually led to the greatest destructive force the world has ever seen. After the war, Einstein taught at Princeton and acquired many quirky idiosyncrasies—likely dealing with the crushing nature of human existence. On his 72nd birthday in 1951, a photograph taken by Arthur Sasse froze this image in time—and the world is ever thankful. The original print and negatives were sold at auction for a lofty $72,300, and unlicensed reprints spread like wild-fire.
Marilyn Monroe's Flying Skirt
Photographer Sam Shaw managed to capture the most distinctive photograph of Marilyn Monroe on the set of Seven Year Itch. The 50s were a different time, this photograph partly took off because of its scandalous feature of the dress wafting above Monroe's knees. The story behind 1954's Flying Skirt photograph sadly downplays its candid and spontaneous nature.
Good portraiture captures the essence of the person and translates their presence to the world. Alberto Korda did exactly that in 1960 with Guerrillero Heroica, a iconic portrait of Che Guevara. The facial expression on Guevara's face was in reaction to La Coubre explosion, which the C.I.A is rumored to have caused. This portrait is emblematic and symbolic of the 20th century, expressing the constant tension of communist movements in South and Central America, and the Caribbean. Ironically enough, Guevarra's face has been commercialized on t-shirts and sold to consumer markets—the dream for any communist.
The Burning Monk
The self-immolating monk featured is Thich Quang Duc, and his act was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem. John F. Kennedy observed that, "No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one." (No wonder how Kennedy became a cultural icon with empathetic quotes like that, right?) For his astute timing, Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1963 photograph of the monk's protest.
Williams Anders has achieved it all, a retired Air Force Major General, former electrical engineer, nuclear engineer, businessman, and, arguably, one of the most famous astronauts for NASA. He also happens to be the man who captured one of the most famous photographs of all time in 1968. While flat-earthers claim that this photograph is false, it is truly a stunning piece of visual composition. Wilderness photographer Galen Rowell called Earthrise, "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken."
Awarded a Pulitzer Price in 1969, Eddie Adams visually communicated the tumultuous violence that occurred during the Vietnam War. The execution of a Viet Cong solider took place during the Tet Offensive, one of the biggest military advances during the war. The American public was jarred by the violence taken out on the US ally in the war. Adams is quoted saying, "Two people died in that photograph: the recipient of the bullet and General Nguyen Ngoc Loan. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera." While Adams did not have his legacy defined by this 1968 photograph, its impact was significant enough to change the opinion of the war in the US.
The Terror of War
As the Vietnam War continued, both sides got more desperate to achieve victory no matter the cost. Nick Ut captured children fleeing from a Napalm bombing in 1972. The result of a missed bombing by South Vietnamese, victims included Phan Thi Kim Phuc, the girl in the center of the photo. She was nine-years-old at the time, and naked from having her clothes burned off by the napalm. The photograph won a Pulitzer Prize in 1973 and became an iconic image of the 20th century. Its graphic depiction of the violence and suffering undergone by innocent civilians helped swing the public support towards ending the war.
Following the suppressed protests in Tiananmen Square, an anonymous man obstructed the passage for a series of tanks in 1989. No information about the "Tank Man" or those driving the tanks has been publicly revealed. Thankfully, a handful of photographers, including Jeff Widener, captured the event from an array of angles. The violence during and following the protest at Tiananmen Square was not condemned by the so called "free world." China eventually swept this under the rug with many of their other human rights violations.
The Vulture and the Little Girl
In a jarring juxtaposition, a girl suffering from famine is being stalked by a vulture. She is attempting to reach a United Nations feeding center in South Sudan, an area plagued by droughts and insufficient resources to combat the problem. Kevin Carter captured the image in 1993, and reported that the girl recovered enough to make journey after the vulture was chased away, but does not know if she reached the center. The picture's intention was to raise awareness about the immense suffering undergone by certain areas of the world—while many hubs lived in excess surplus.
Without any context, this is a beautiful image of symmetry and composition. This photograph taken by Richard Drew, though, was captured at 9:41 AM during the September 11th attacks on New York City. It featured on newspapers around the world, with many criticizing publications for printing such jarring and disturbing content. This man has never been officially identified, but he represents the immense suffering that all in lower Manhattan went through that day.
This photograph initially featured on the cover of National Geographic in 1985. Steve McCurry walked through a refugee camp in Pakistan through a sea of tents and approached Sharbat Gula. The image became a sensation, her sea-green eyes entranced anyone who gazed across her face. McCurry reconnected with the Afghan Girl in 2002 and shared her story since the iconic photograph. Her more recent photographs tell the story of Pakistan, 23 years of war, 3.5 million refugees, and 1.5 million killed.
The Situation Room
Jammed into a small conference room, the tension was so thick it could be sliced with a knife—it was the middle of Operation Neptune Spear. A mission accomplished in 2011, that eventually ended in the capture and killing of Osama Bin Laden. Pete Souza was there to capture this iconic scene.
An unfortunate theme for many of the most famous photographs of all time is that is usually revolves around death. The death of a protestor, zealot, sufferer, or the innocent. Humankind's amazement of seeing others suffering is an interesting phenomena that deserves more attention. Thankfully, death isn't the only visual stimuli that people enjoy. Human existence is grateful for artists that capture iconic photos that make us smile and make us think—like those of Henri Cartier-Bresson and William Anders featured above.