Photos Capture Some of History’s Most Influential Moments
Photography has revolutionized the way humans communicate information. Over the last couple centuries, pictures have recorded incredibly important moments that have legitimately changed the world. Some of the images in this article are the earliest known photos from a variety of fields, while others helped to expose society to aspects of reality in a way that was impossible before the invention of the camera. From outer space to the old west, poverty to politics, and civil rights to conspiracies, the pictures here had, and continue to have, a profound impact on modern civilization.
Above is a historic shot of the Berlin Wall after it fell, with people actually crossing. Underneath it is a beautiful photograph taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt during V-J Day, or Victory Over Japan Day. After World War II ended people were celebrating in New York City’s Times Square when a sailor grabbed a nurse, tilted her back and kissed her. The photographer wanted “to find and catch the storytelling moment,” and he certainly did. This breathtaking shot became the most famous and frequently reproduced picture of the 20th century. What follows are even more iconic images that you have to see to believe…
View from the Window at Le Gras
Upon first viewing, this heliographic image from the 1820s doesn’t even necessarily look like a photo. That’s because it is actually history’s oldest surviving camera photograph. Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, a man who was more of an inventor than an artist, was interested in the printing method of lithography. This is when pictures drawn on stone are reproduced using oil-based ink. As a means of finding alternative ways to produce images, he used a device called a camera obscura, which is a darkened box with a convex lens or aperture for projecting the image of an external object onto a screen inside.
Niépce focused it on the view from his studio window in eastern France at Saint-Loup-de-Varennes. What it captured was then projected onto a 6.4 inch × 8.0 inch treated pewter plate, which was thinly coated with Bitumen of Judea, a naturally occurring asphalt. The result was a crude copy of the surrounding buildings outside and the first known permanent photograph. It was publicly shown until the early 20th century before falling into oblivion for almost fifty years. Finally, in 1952, it reemerged and Niépce was acknowledged as the inventor of photography.
The Hand of Mrs. Wilhelm Röntgen
Almost as important as the first photograph is the first medical x-ray image. Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was a German mechanical engineer and physicist, who, in 1895, produced and detected electromagnetic radiation in a wavelength range known as x-rays, or Röntgen rays, an achievement that earned him the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901. He had been investigating the external effects from various types of vacuum tube equipment when an electrical discharge passed through them.
After a series of tests and variations, some which appeared to penetrate solid objects and expose sheets of photographic paper, he knew he was onto something. This resulted in the very first x-ray picture of his wife’s hand. When she saw it she exclaimed, “I have seen my death!” And she wasn’t the only one who was blown away. The photograph was a sensation and quickly went into use all around the world. This helped to revolutionize the diagnosis and treatment of injuries and illnesses that had gone unseen prior to this amazing advancement.
The Horse In Motion
In 1878, Eadweard Muybridge was commissioned to provide proof that horses become fully airborne when they move. He developed a method of photography with an exposure lasting a fraction of a second, then arranged 12 cameras connected by wires to a track on which a horse ran and triggered the pics to be taken in rapid succession. This stop-motion technique shed new light on the functions of the medium, and helped pave the way for the motion-picture industry.
The First Camera Phone Picture
Jumping ahead a century with an equally important image, comes the first cell-phone photo. In 1997, while at the hospital after the birth of his daughter, a software entrepreneur named Philippe Kahn wanted to capture and share a picture of Sophie in real time. He connected a digital camera to his flip phone using a few lines of original code. After he refined his prototype, Sharp first used the technology that would then go on to change the world.
To produce The Pond, exhibited with both Moonlight and Moonrise, Edward Steichen first photographed a wooded scene in Mamaroneck, N.Y. and then hand-colored the black-and-white prints with blue tones. The combination of the two mediums is known as Pictorialism, which in general refers to when a photographer manipulates what would otherwise be a straightforward photograph as a means of creating an image rather than simply recording it. A hundred years later a print sold for nearly $3 million.
During the Gilded Age, New York City became home to many of the world’s immigrants who suffered through horrible living conditions. While many refused to acknowledge this, Jacob Riis documented it in his brave photography, most famously with this picture of a Lower East Side street gang, which became the basis of his revelatory book How the Other Half Lives. This led to improved conditions for the poor through the use of photojournalism.
The Loch Ness Monster
One of the more iconic images ever is the faked photograph of the Loch Ness Monster. It was purportedly taken by Robert Wilson, a British doctor, in April 1934. But it was actually wild-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell, who had been sent to Scotland to prove the existence of Nessie. He and his son used Dr. Wilson, who was a respected physician, to help make the hoax more credible. The subject of the “surgeon’s photograph” was actually just a toy submarine.
Marilyn Monroe is arguably the most popular sex symbol of all time. The actress, model and singer was photographed wearing a dress that was created by costume designer William Travilla for one of the best known scenes in Billy Wilder’s 1955 film The Seven Year Itch. The image of Monroe standing above a subway grating has been obsessed over and recreated countless times.
Boulevard du Temple
In 1839, Louis Daguerre captured a groundbreaking photograph that would make history as the first known instance of human beings captured on camera. If you look close on the left side of the picture you can see a shoe shiner and his customer. Daguerre focused his lens on the Paris street and then exposed a silver-plated sheet of copper for several minutes before developing the image with chemicals. The result was the first mirror-image photograph.
The Valley of the Shadow of Death
In 1855, British photographer Roger Fenton capture images of the Crimean War, an almost three-year conflict which saw Russia fighting England, France, Turkey and Sardinia-Piedmont. He revolutionized war photography to show the reality of battle, something that wasn’t seen in heroic paintings and illustrations. The haunting photo above shows a cannonball-strewn gully that, along with the rest of his coverage, radically changed the way we view war.
Before he ventured into the overwhelming beauty of Yosemite, Carleton Watkins loaded up a pack of mules with his mammoth plate camera, tripods and a makeshift tent darkroom. After an epic journey he emerged with the first printed images of the national park. The impact of these powerful pictures would play a huge role in the foundation of the National Park System, which now protects some 84 million acres of land.
When Fidel Castro and his young ally, the Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara, attended a funeral for dozens of victims of a ship explosion in Havana Harbor, photographer Alberto Korda took what would become another one of the most iconic, popular images ever. This photo was initially overshadowed by those of Castro, but after Guevara was killed in action his regime embraced him as a martyr for the movement. The picture has been recreated and reproduced countless times.
In December of 1968, astronaut Bill Anders snapped a photo of earth all the way from the far side of the moon. He was on board the Apollo 8 spacecraft, which was the first manned mission to orbit the moon. The first shot was in black and white. Luckily, the other astronauts were then able to help him capture one in color that would become the first full-color view of our planet from off of it.
Sunset On Mars
Almost four decades later, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rover Spirit presented the world with a vision of Mars at dusk. In an incredible image from May 19, 2005, this panoramic mosaic captured the sun sinking below the rim of the Gusev crater. Scientists used this and other photos to determine that the long Martian twilight is caused by sunlight scattered around to the night side of the planet by abundant high altitude dust.
A Man on the Moon
Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first men on the moon. While Armstrong took the first steps, he also had to carry the crew’s 70-millimeter Hasselblad camera, which meant that Aldrin would be subject of the pictures. But Neil can still be seen reflected in Buzz’s visor. This powerful photograph accompanied many memorable images from that historic day.
Pillars of Creation
The Pillars of Creation shows the Eagle Nebula, a star-forming patch of space 6,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Serpens Cauda. It was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope on April 1, 1995, after a series of failed attempts. The astronomers responsible for the photo were Jeff Hester and Paul Scowen from Arizona State University. The great smokestacks are vast clouds of interstellar dust, shaped by the high-energy winds blowing out from nearby stars.
During the Great Depression, one of the government’s Resettlement Administration photographers named Dorothea Lange captured an image of Frances Owens Thompson in the “Pea-Pickers Camp” just north of Los Angeles. The mother, along with her children and many others at the encampment, had been struggling after the farm’s crop froze. After the photograph went public 20,000 pounds of food were sent to the location.
When surrealist painter Salvador Dalí collaborated with his longtime friend, photographer Philippe Halsman, they produced an incredibly iconic image. The photo was inspired by Dalí’s painting Leda Atomica, which Halsman referenced to create an elaborate scene to surround the artist. Assistants stood just out of the frame and threw all of the objects seen into the air while Dalí jumped. This took 26 attempts. Halsman’s work redefined portrait photography.
This amazing picture of Abraham Lincoln was taken way before he became President. In 1860, he was a one-term Illinois Congressman who had just arrived in New York City to speak at the Cooper Union. Mathew B. Brady captured Lincoln’s youthful features in a powerful photograph that, along with his amazing speech, would eventually send him to the White House. This is one of the most powerful early instances of a photo being used as campaign propaganda.
This “back shot” of Hollywood starlet Betty Grable was one of the earliest pinups, with American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines requesting up to 50,000 2 inch by 3 inch prints a month during World War II. 20th Century Fox photographer Frank Powolny was taking publicity pictures of her for 1943’s Sweet Rosie O’Grady when he snapped this iconic image.
Gordon Parks, the first African-American photographer at LIFE magazine, wanted to explore how other African-Americans dealt with the awful racism in the early ‘40s. He found Ella Watson, an employee in the Farm Security Administration’s building where he was working on his fellowship. After hearing about all of her unbelievable struggles he took what is clearly a parody of Grant Wood’s iconic 1930 oil painting in order to bring attention to this issue.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably the most important figure in America’s civil rights movement. This heartbreaking image, taken by photographer Charles Moore for The Montgomery Advertiser newspaper, captures King’s struggle. In it, he is being arrested in Alabama for “loitering” in 1958. This, along with many other instances like it, was part of his journey that eventually inspired…
I Have a Dream
Five years after the previous picture, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963 that is maybe the most powerful in history. From the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to a crowd of over 250,000 supporters, he called for an end to racism in the United States and for civil and economic equality in what was a defining moment of the civil rights movement.
Black Power Salute
Another five years later, during the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, American sprinters Tommie Smith and John Carlos kept the movement going. While standing on the medal stand, moments before the “The Star-Spangled Banner” played, the gold and bronze medalists bowed their heads and raised their black-gloved fists in the air. The incredible image was captured by John Dominis and has gone on to symbolize the African-American struggle for equality.
Over three decades earlier, during the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Jesse Owens made a similar move from almost the exact same position. After winning several gold medals, which challenged Hitler’s myth of Aryan supremacy, he chose a more traditional gesture, as opposed to German Luz Long’s Nazi salute. Reports of Hitler’s reaction to Germany’s loss range from him storming out of the stadium, to shaking Owens’ hand. Either way, this was a defining moment captured on camera.
Above is a rare photograph of an 11-year-old Anne Frank stitching in 1940, two years before she and her family went into hiding. She eventually became one of the most discussed Jewish victims of the Holocaust. Her posthumous fame came as a result of the publication of The Diary of a Young Girl in which she documents her life in hiding from 1942 to 1944, during the German occupation of the Netherlands in World War II.
The Vanishing Race
During the westward expansion of the United States, Native Americans were evicted from their ancestral lands and forced into impoverished reservations. Edward S. Curtis wanted to document this horrible aspect of American history and did so in what would become The North American Indian, a 20-volume chronicle of 80 tribes. In the most iconic image from this collection, Navajo are seen riding away from the camera into a dark and uncertain future.
Photographer Paul Strand captured this pioneering image of a blind immigrant on New York City’s Lower East Side. In order to catch people as they truly were, he used a special camera that allowed him to face one direction and take a picture of another. The image of the woman, who was selling newspapers, is one of the earliest instances of street photography, which challenged the more traditional styles of the time by offering real depictions of it subjects.
In 1930, an important group of individuals gathered in the Hague to discuss German World War I reparations. Photojournalist Erich Salomon used a small Leica camera to capture the exhausted foreign ministers after hours of negotiations. The publication of the picture marked one of the first times everyday citizens could see behind the curtain and witness their leaders in a more realistic state of being.
Over a decade later, not long after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Parliament in Ottawa to thank the Allies for their help. Photographer Yousuf Karsh struggled to get the iconic figure’s picture. After a dramatic back and forth, Churchill finally allowed a proper shot that became a pillar of political portraiture. He told the cameraman, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”
Annette Marie Sarah Kellermann was an Australian professional swimmer, vaudeville star, film actress, writer and business owner. She was one of the first women to wear a one-piece bathing suit, which became so popular that she started her own fashion line. She was also the first major actress to appear nude in a Hollywood production. Kellermann was an advocate of health, fitness and natural beauty.
Photographer Alfred Stieglitz was a leader of the Photo-Secession movement. He called his work “straight photography,” which captured a more truthful look at its subjects. In the early 20th century he was sailing to Europe when he took an incredible picture of the crowded lower-class section, which was kept far away from the ship’s first-class deck. The claustrophobic image is one of the first “modernist” pictures, and made history as a defining moment for the medium.
In November of 1953, Helen Keller, the deaf-blind woman who was made famous from her depiction in The Miracle Worker, met President Dwight Eisenhower. In this beautifully unique image, Keller, who was accompanied by Polly Thomson, greeted the President not by shaking his hand, but instead, by feeling his face. She did this so that she could “see” him.
Tryst with Destiny
In what is considered to be one of the greatest speeches of the 20th century, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru declared India’s Independence. His words captured the essence of the triumphant culmination of a largely non-violent struggle against the British Empire. He made sure to end the speech right at 12 o’clock so that the birth of the new nation could happen at the stroke of midnight.
One of the most heartbreaking images in history is of President John F. Kennedy moments before he was shot. On Friday, November 22, 1963, at 12:30 p.m. in Dallas, Texas his motorcade was riding through Dealey Plaza. The identity of his killer has never been confirmed, and countless conspiracy theories exist in attempt to learn the truth. The next photograph is a direct result of this tragedy…
Later that day, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson was sworn in as the 36th President of the United States aboard Air Force One at Love Field. This was the eighth non-scheduled, extraordinary inauguration to take place since the presidency was established in 1789. In this incredible image, Jacqueline Kennedy can be seen wearing the same coat she had on when her husband was assassinated.
During the 19th century in the Dutch cemetery seen above, Catholic and Protestant spouses were not allowed to be buried together. In this powerful picture, the graves of a Catholic woman and her Protestant husband, a colonel of the Dutch Cavalry and militia commissioner in Limburg, defy this injustice. Two clasped hands connect the graves across the wall.
The Situation Room
On May 1, 2011, White House photographer Pete Souza captured an image of the Situation Room during the final moments of the hunt for Osama bin Laden. President Barack Obama launched the raid on the Pakistan compound which resulted in the death of the terrorist leader. Similar to the previously seen image, The Hague, it shows political leaders in a more honest, real state.
In the middle of the 86th Annual Academy Awards at the Dolby Theatre on March 2, 2014, host Ellen DeGeneres snapped a pic of herself with Bradley Cooper, Meryl Streep, Jennifer Lawrence, Jared Leto, Channing Tatum, Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, Lupita Nyong’o, Angelina Jolie, Peter Nyong’o Jr. and Kevin Spacey, years before his scandal rocked Hollywood. The iconic image has been retweeted over 3 million times, more than any other photo in history.