Photographs That Changed the
Photography can take us places, we've never been before, perhaps
never dreamed of. There are some photographs that will make you stop and think.
These 10 photographs stopped the world and people hold their breaths for a few
seconds to take it all in.
The Photograph That Raised the Photojournalistic
"Omaha Beach, Normandy, France" Robert Capa, 1944
"If your pictures aren't good enough," war photographer Robert
Capa used to say, "you aren't close enough." Words to die by, yes, but the man
knew of what he spoke. After all, his most memorable shots were taken on the
morning of D-Day, June 6, 1944, when he landed alongside the first waves of
infantry at Omaha Beach.
Caught under heavy fire, Capa dove for what
little cover he could find, then shot all the film in his camera, and got out "
just barely. He escaped with his life, but not much else. Of the four rolls of
film Capa took of the horrific D-Day battle, all but 11 exposures were ruined by
an overeager lab assistant, who melted the film in his rush to develop it. (He
was trying to meet the deadline for the next issue of Life magazine.)
an ironic twist, however, that same mistake gave the few surviving exposures
their famously surreal look ("slightly out of focus," Life incorrectly explained
upon printing them). More than 50 years later, director Steven Spielberg would
go to great lengths to reproduce the look of that "error" for his harrowing
D-Day landing sequence in "Saving Private Ryan," even stripping the coating from
his camera lenses to echo Capa's notorious shots.
The Photograph That Gave a Face to the Great
"Migrant Mother" Dorothea Lange, 1936
As era-defining photographs go, "Migrant Mother" pretty much
takes the cake. For many, Florence Owens Thompson is the face of the Great
Depression, thanks to legendary educated and apprenticed photojournalist
Dorothea Lange. Lange captured the image while visiting a dusty California
pea-pickers' camp in February 1936, and in doing so, captured the resilience of
a proud nation facing desperate times.
Unbelievably, Thompson's story is
as compelling as her portrait. Just 32 years old when Lange approached her ("as
if drawn by a magnet," Lange said). Thompson was a mother of seven who'd lost
her husband to tuberculosis. Stranded at a migratory labor farm in Nipomo,
Calif. her family sustained themselves on birds killed by her kids and
vegetables taken from a nearby field " as meager a living as any earned by the
other 2,500 workers there. The photo's impact was staggering. Reproduced in
newspapers everywhere, Thompson's haunted face triggered an immediate public
outcry, quickly prompting politicos from the federal Resettlement Administration
to send food and supplies. Sadly, however, Thompson and her family had already
moved on, receiving nary a wedge of government cheese for their high-profile
misery. In fact, no one knew the identity of the photographed woman until
Thompson revealed herself years later in a 1976 newspaper article.
The Photograph That Brought the Battlefield
"Federal Dead on the Field of Battle of First Day, Gettysburg,
Pennsylvania" Mathew Brady, 1863
As one of the world's first war photographers, Mathew Brady
out having as action-packed a career as you might think. A
successful daguerreotypist and a distinguished gentleman, Brady was known for
his portraits of notable people such as Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee. In
other words, he was hardly a photojournalist in the trenches.
Brady had everything to lose by making a career move " his money, his business,
and quite possibly his life. Nevertheless, he decided to risk it all and follow
the Union Army into battle with his camera, saying, "A spirit in my feet said,
˜Go!'" And go he did " at least until he got a good look at the pointy end of a
After narrowly escaping capture at the first Battle
of Bull Run, Brady's chatty feet quieted down a bit, and he began sending
assistants in his place. In the span of only a few years, Brady and his team
shot more than 7,000 photographs " an astounding number when you consider that
developing a single plate required a horse-drawn-wagon-full of cumbersome
equipment and noxious chemicals. Not exactly what you'd call
Tethered as he was to his equine-powered darkroom and
with film speeds being much slower then, Brady produced war photos that are
understandably light on the action and heavy on the aftermath. Still, they mark
the first time Americans were so immediately confronted with the grim realities
of the battlefield.
The Photograph That Ended a War But Ruined a
"Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief" Eddie Adams,
"Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world,"
AP photojournalist Eddie Adams once wrote. A fitting quote for Adams, because
his 1968 photograph of an officer shooting a handcuffed prisoner in the head at
point-blank range not only earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1969, but also went a
long way toward souring Americans' attitudes about the Vietnam War.
all the image's political impact, though, the situation wasn't as
black-and-white as it's rendered. What Adams' photograph doesn't reveal is that
the man being shot was the captain of a Vietcong "revenge squad" that had
executed dozens of unarmed civilians earlier the same day. Regardless, it
instantly became an icon of the war's savagery and made the official pulling the
trigger " General Nguyen Ngoc Loan " its iconic villain.
photograph's legacy would haunt Loan for the rest of his life. Following the
war, he was reviled where ever he went. After an Australian VA hospital refused
to treat him, he was transferred to the United States, where he was met with a
massive (though unsuccessful) campaign to deport him. He eventually settled in
Virginia and opened a restaurant but was forced to close it down as soon as his
past caught up with him. Vandals scrawled "we know who you are" on his walls,
and business dried up.
Adams felt so bad for Loan that he apologized for
having taken the photo at all, admitting, "The general killed the Vietcong; I
killed the general with my camera."
The Photograph That Isn't as Romantic as You Might
"V-J Day, Times Square, 1945³, a.k.a. "The Kiss"Alfred
On August 14, 1945, the news of Japan's surrender was announced
in the United States, signaling the end of World War II. Riotous celebrations
erupted in the streets, but perhaps none were more relieved than those in
uniform. Although many of them had recently returned from victory in
they faced the prospect of having to ship out yet again, this time to the bloody
Among the overjoyed masses gathered in Times Square that day was
one of the most talented photojournalists of the 20th century, a German
immigrant named Alfred Eisenstaedt. While snapping pictures of the celebration,
he spotted a sailor "running along the street grabbing any and every girl in
sight." He later explained that, "whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin,
old, didn't make any difference."
Of course, a photo of the sailor
planting a wet one on a senior citizen wouldn't have made the cover of Life, but
when he locked lips with an attractive nurse, the image was circulated in
newspapers across the country. Needless to say, "V-J Day" didn't capture a
highly anticipated embrace by long-lost lovers, but it also wasn't staged, as
many critics have claimed. In any case, the image remains an enduring symbol of
America's exuberance at the end of a long struggle.
The Photograph That Destroyed an
"Hindenburg" Murray Becker, 1937
Forget the Titanic, the Lusitania, and the comparatively
unphotogenic accident at Chernobyl. Thanks to the power of images, the explosion
of the Hindenburg on May 6, 1937, claims the dubious honor of being the
quintessential disaster of the 20th century.
In the grand scheme of
things, however, the Hindenburg wasn't all that disastrous. Of the 97 people
aboard, a surprising 62 survived. (in fact, it wasn't even the worst Zeppelin
crash of the 20th century. Just four years earlier, the U.S.S. Akron had crashed
into the Atlantic killing more than twice as many people.) But when calculating
the epic status of a catastrophe, terrifying photographs and quotable quotes
("Oh, the humanity!") far outweigh body counts.
Assembled as part of a
massive PR campaign by the Hindenburg's parent company in Germany, no fewer than
22 photographers, reporters, and newsreel cameramen were on the scene in
Lakehurst, N.J. when the airship went down. Worldwide publicity of the
well-documented disaster shattered the public's faith in Zeppelins, which were,
at the time, considered the safest mode of air travel available.
the 1920s and 1930s, Zeppelins had operated regular flights, totting civilians
back and forth between Germany and the Americas. But all of that stopped in
1937. The incident effectively killed the use of dirigibles as a commercially
viable mode of passenger transport, ending the golden age of the airship not
with a whimper, but with a horrific bang that was photographed and then
syndicated around the globe.
The Photograph That Saved the Planet
Tetons " Snake River" Ansel Adams, 1942
Some claim photography can be divided into two eras: Before
Adams and After Adams. In Times B.A., for instance, photography wasn't widely
considered an art form. Rather, photographers attempted to make their pictures
more "artistic" (i.e., more like paintings) by subjecting their exposures to all
sorts of extreme manipulations, from coating their lenses with petroleum jelly
to scratching the surfaces of their negatives with needles. Then came Ansel
Adams, helping shutterbugs everywhere get over their collective inferiority
Brashly declaring photography to be "a blazing poetry of the
real," Adams eschewed manipulations, claiming they were simply derivative of
other art forms. Instead, he preached the value of "pure photography." In an era
when handheld point-and-shoot cameras were quickly becoming the norm, Adams and
other landscape photographers clung to their bulky, old-fashioned large-format
cameras. Ultimately, Adams' pictures turned photography into fine art. What's
more, they shaped the way Americans thought of their nation's wilderness and,
with that, how to preserve it.
Adams' passion for the land wasn't limited
to vistas he framed through the lens. In 1936, he accompanied his photos to
Washington to lobby for the preservation of the Kings Canyon area in California.
Sure enough, he was successful, and it was declared a national park.
The Photograph That Kept Che Alive
Corpse of Che Guevara" Freddy Alborta, 1967
Sociopathic thug? Socialist luminary? Or as existentialist
Jean-Paul Sartre called him, "the most complete human being of our age"?
Whatever you believe, there's no denying that Ernesto "Che" Guevara has become
the patron saint of revolutionaries. Undeniably, he is a man of mythical status
" a reputation that persists less because of how he lived than because of how he
Unenthused by his efforts to incite revolution among the poor and
oppressed in Bolivia, the nation's army (trained and equipped by the U.S.
military and the CIA) captured and executed Guevara in 1967. But before dumping
his body in a secret grave, they gathered around for a strategic photo op. They
wanted to prove to the world that Che was dead, in hopes that his political
movement would die with him. in fact, anticipating charges that the photo had
been faked, Che's thoughtful captors amputated his hands and preserved them in
But by killing the man, Bolivian officials unwittingly
birthed his legend. The photo, which circulated around the world, bore a
striking resemblance to Renaissance paintings of Christ taken down from the
cross. Even as Che's killers preened and gloated above him (the officer on the
right seems to be inadvertently pointing to a wound on Guevara's body near where
Christ's final wound was inflicted), Che's eerily peaceful face was described as
showing forgiveness. The photo's allegorical significance certainly wasn't lost
on the revolutionary protesters of the era. They quickly adopted "Che lives!" as
a slogan and rallying cry. Thanks to this photograph, "the passion of the Che"
ensured that he would live on forever as a martyr for the socialist cause.
The Photograph that Allowed Geniuses to Have a Sense of
"Einstein with his Tongue Out" Arthur Sasse, 1951
You may appreciate this memorable portrait as much as the next
fellow, but it's still fair to wonder: "Did it really change history?" Rest
assured, we think it did. While Einstein certainly changed history with his
contributions to nuclear physics and quantum mechanics, this photo changed the
way history looked at Einstein. By humanizing a man known chiefly for his
brilliance, this image is the reason Einstein's name has become synonymous not
only with "genius," but also with "wacky genius."
So why the
history-making tongue? It seems Professor Einstein, hoping to enjoy his 72nd
birthday in peace, was stuck on the Princeton campus enduring incessant hounding
by the press. Upon being prodded to smile for the camera for what seemed like
the millionth time, he gave photographer Arthur Sasse a good look at his uvula
instead. This being no ordinary tongue, the resulting photo became an instant
classic, thus ensuring that the distinguished Nobel Prize-winner would be
remembered as much for his personality as for his brain.
The Photograph That Made the Surreal
"DalÃ Atomicus" Philippe Halsman, 1948
Philippe Halsman is quite possibly the only photographer to have
made a career out of taking portraits of people jumping. But he claimed the act
of leaping revealed his subjects' true selves, and looking at his most famous
jump, "DalÃ Atomicus," it's pretty hard to disagree.
is Halsman's homage both to the new atomic age (prompted by physicist'
then-recent announcement that all matter hangs in a constant state of
suspension) and to DalÃ's surrealist masterpiece "Leda Atomica" (seen on
the right, behind the cats, and unfinished at the time). It took six hours, 28
jumps, and a roomful of assistants throwing angry cats and buckets of water into
the air to get the perfect exposure.
But before settling on the
"Atomicus" we know today, Halsman rejected a number of other concepts for the
shot. One was the idea of throwing milk instead of water, but that was abandoned
for fear that viewers, fresh from the privations of World War II, would condemn
it as a waste of milk. Another involved exploding a cat in order to capture it
"in suspension," though that arguably would have been a waste of
Halsman's methods were as unique as they were effective. His
celebrity "jump" portraits appeared on at least seven Life magazine covers and
helped usher in a new " and radically more adventurous " era of portrait