This collection of 20 famous photographs has been carefully chosen because of their importance in history. Each one of these iconic images has helped shape our history and alter the world which we live in. They are some of the most powerful and influential images ever captured by some of the most famous photographers in history.
Images have a way of cutting through and triggering an immediate emotional response like nothing else can. They open a window for us to view the world through the eyes of the photographer.
Photography has helped to reinforced history making it more tangible and real. It has also made the camera an important tool not only to document history but also to help change it.
#1 Henri Cartier-Bresson’s famous photo Man Jumping the Puddle | 1930
In this, one of his most iconic photos, Henri Cartier-Bresson captured a scene through a fence behind the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris.
This image became the perfect example of what Cartier-Bresson referred to as “The Decisive Moment”.
“There is nothing in this world that does not have a decisive moment.”
The French photographer is often referred to as the father of modern photojournalism.
He coined the term “The Decisive Moment” to refer to a moment when the photographer captures a fleeting second, immortalizing it in time.
#2The famous photo The Steerage by Alfred Stieglitz | 1907
“I stood spellbound for a while. I saw shapes related to one another—a picture of shapes, and underlying it, a new vision that held me.”
One of the most famous photographers of the early 20th Century, Stieglitz fought for photography to be taken as seriously as painting as a valid art form. His pioneering work helped to change the way many viewed photography. His NYC galleries featured many of the best photographers of the day.
His iconic image “The Steerage” not only encapsulates what he called straight photography – offering a truthful take on the world. It also gives us a more complex and multi-layered viewpoint that conveys abstraction through the shapes in the image. And how those shapes relate to one another.
Note: Many years ago one of my instructors at my photography program in college showed us The Steerage and talked about how important it was, how significant. The 21-year-old version of myself didn’t get it.
I admit it took me many years to understand its genius and its message. So if you don’t “get” it right off the bat you’re in good company.
#3 Stanley Forman’s famous photo Woman Falling From Fire Escape |1975
Forman was a well-known photographer working for the Boston Herald when he attended the scene of a fire. What began as him documenting the rescue of a young woman and child quickly took a turn when the fire escape collapsed.
The pair began to fall and he continued shooting as they were falling. He capturing them swimming through the air. Forman only lowered his camera and turned at the last moment when he realized what he was witnessing was a woman plummeting to her death.
This famous photograph won Forman a Pulitzer prize. But its interesting legacy is the ethical questions it raised about when a photographer should stop shooting and whether it is appropriate to publish disturbing images. It also caused many municipalities to enforce stricter fire-escape safety codes, so you decide.
#4 Kevin Carter’s controversial photo – Starving Child and Vulture | 1993
This image is another Pulitzer Prize-winning image. As famous for its social impact, as it is the ethical issues it raised.
In 1993 South African photojournalist Kevin Carter traveled to Sudan to photograph the famine. His image of a collapsed child, with a vulture stalking over her, not only caused public outrage because of the horrific subject. It also stirred up a lot of criticism directed toward the photographer, for photographing the child, rather than helping her.
That day, and the onslaught that came after continued to haunt Carter until he took his own life in 1994.
For the record, the mother was apparently right next to the scene and the child was never in danger of being attacked by the bird. Notice that it was also shot with a longer telephoto lens which makes a scene look more compressed, making the bird appear closer to the child than reality.
If you want to learn more about this image and more shot by photojournalists in South Africa during the fall of Apartheid, check out The Bang Bang Club. Watch the trailer below, and you can watch the full movie on YouTube for $3.99. It’s a great documentary, but not for the faint of heart.
#5 Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Eddie Adams | Saigon Execution | 1968
Pulitzer Prize-winning photojournalist Eddie Adams was on the streets of Saigon on the 1st February 1968 photographing the devastation of the war.
Still photographs are the most powerful weapon in the world. – Eddie Adams, PhotographerClick To TweetBelieving he was witnessing a routine execution of a prisoner. He looked through the viewfinder of his camera, to capture the scene. But what he captured was the casual assassination of the prisoner.
This iconic photo became one of the most powerful images of the Vietnam War. It helped fuel the anti-war movement and end US involvement in the war because it brought to life in a horrific visual, the magnitude of the violence occurring.
#6 Yousuf Karsh’s iconic portrait – Winston Churchill | 1941
“By the time I got back to my camera, he looked so belligerent, he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.”
In the wake of the attack on pearl harbor, Churchill arrived in Ottawa, to thank the allies for their assistance.
Unaware that a photographer had been commissioned to take his portrait he refused to remove his cigar. Once the photographer was set up he walked towards Churchill, removed the cigar from his mouth and took his famous photograph with the scowl.
Of the incident, Churchill told Karsh “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”
This image is one of the most widely reproduced political portraits. It gave photographers permission to take more honest, and even critical, portraits of political leaders.
#7 Nick Ut | The Terror of War | 1972
“The horror of the Vietnam War recorded by me did not have to be fixed.”
25 miles northwest of Saigon, war photographer Nick Ut, captured one of the most harrowing images in the history of the Vietnam War. More often than not, the faces of those who suffer through the collateral damage of war are not seen.
But the harrowing image of 9-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc forced the world to see. A victim of mistakenly dropped napalm, she was later helped by Ut and received lifesaving treatment.
At the time of publication in 1972 many Newspapers had to relax their policies on nudity. The image remains controversial to this day, recently it was briefly removed from Facebook for the same reasons.
Nick Ut won a Pulitzer Prize for this famous image in 1973.
#8 Margaret Bourke-White’s famous photograph – Gandhi and the Spinning Wheel | 1946
In 1946 Margaret Bourke-White, LIFE magazine’s first female photographer, was offered a rare opportunity to photograph Mahatma Gandhi. This dream opportunity quickly turned into a nightmare. She was made to overcome many challenges before gaining access to India’s ideological leader. Including to spin Gandhi’s famous homespun.
After two failed shoots, thanks to technical difficulties, it was third time lucky for Bourke-White.
This iconic image of Gandhi at his spinning wheel was captured less than two years before his assassination.
#9 Lewis Hine’s famous image – Cotton Mill Girl | 1908
Established in 1904, the National Child Labor Committee, existed to fight for the rights of child workers in the USA. They realized that the most powerful tool they had was to show the real face of these children. They believed that seeing these images of child labor would awaken the citizens to demand change.
When Lewis Hine, an investigative photographer, came across Sadie Pfeifer, one of the smallest children at work. Standing at just 48 inches, he knew he had a shot that would change peoples views.
This photograph along with others was a crucial part of the campaign which led to a change in legislation. The outcome of which was a 50% cut in the number of child laborers over a 10 year period.
#10 Blind Beggar by Paul Strand | 1916
Paul Strand’s groundbreaking image of a blind woman was a candid portrait that departed from the more formal posed portraits of that time.
Strand not only captured a moment in time, when a country was changing rapidly, due to an immigration surge. But he also took the first image that paved the way for a new style – street photography.
#11 The Iconic V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstaedt | 1945
“People tell me that when I’m in heaven, they will remember this picture.”
Alfred Eisenstaedt’s mission through this photograph was to “to find and catch the storytelling moment.” In this post-WWII photograph in Times Square, he did just that.
His famous photograph of the soldier and dental nurse has become one of the most iconic images of the 20th century, signifying the joyous end to years of war.
#12 The first photograph in history – by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce – View from the Window at Le Gras |circa 1826
Interestingly the first permanent photograph ever taken was not by an artist, but by inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. His fascination with printing led him to set up a camera obscura at his studio in France in 1826.
The window scene was cast on a pewter plate and presented a crude copy of the scene outside his window. It was an 8-hour exposure and there is only one copy, a positive image. This is why the image is somewhat confusing because the sun had moved across the courtyard during the exposure, causing shadows on both sides to appear.
His groundbreaking work paved the way for the development of modern photography.
#13 James Nachtwey | Famine in Somalia | 1992
“Dare we say that it doesn’t get any worse than this?”
New York Times Magazine reader upon seeing Nachtwey’s image
Unable to get an assignment to document the 1992 famine in Somalia photojournalist James Nachtwey decided to go alone.
Supported on the ground by the Red Cross, Nachtwey captured the horrors of the famine. This, his most haunting image captures a woman in a wheelbarrow waiting to be taken to a feeding center.
After the publication of his harrowing images the Red Cross received the biggest wave of public support since WWII and were able to save ONE and a half million people.
#14 Alberto Korda’s iconic photo of Che Guevara, Guerillero Heroico | 1960
Little did photographer Alberto Korda realize when it took two frames of Fidel Castro’s young associate, as an afterthought, that it would become such an iconic image.
Upon his death 7 years later his portrait of Che Guevara would become the iconic image of rebellion and revolution for people around the world. Even still today it is prevalent in the Cuban culture and around the world. Controversial as Che was, whether you consider him a hero or a villain, the portrait stands the test of time.
#15 Philippe Halsman | Dalí Atomicus | 1948
Philippe Halsman’s life’s work was to capture the essence of those he photographed. Knowing a standard portrait of the flamboyant Salvador Dali was not going to wash, he set out to create something extraordinary.
Halsman even roped in his wife and daughter to assist in throwing the cats and water into the frame. After 26 shots they finally captured this image that has echoes of Dali’s own artwork in it. Note: Remember that was all film so had to be done in a single frame, there was no Photoshop!
Halsman and Dali both had an unusual sense of style and creativity – some might even say bizarre. They collaborated on many projects together including Halsman recreating one of Dali’s painting of a skull using human nude figures.
Halsman helped to shape modern-day portrait photography. His images of Dali, Albert Einstein, Marilyn Monroe and Alfred Hitchcock broke the mold and encouraged photographers to collaborate with their subjects.
#16 Dorothea Lange | Migrant Mother | 1936
On assignment for the Resettlement Administration, Dorothea Lange was tasked to capture the plight of those most affected by the Great Depression in 1936.
Lang tightly framed 32-year-old Thompson and her young children drawing the viewer into the pain and exhausting etched on her face which appears aged beyond her years.
Upon her return, Lange’s, now famous photograph, became the most iconic image of the 160,000 taken to document this desperate time.
The government acted upon seeing the suffering and sent 20,000 pounds of food.
#17 Eadweard Muybridge | The Horse in Motion | 1878
Embarking on a task to discover whether a horse takes flight when galloping. Photographer Eadweard Muybridge was commissioned by California governor Leland Stanford to prove his theory.
Muybridge developed a technique to capture the horse using an exposure lasting just a fraction of a second. He had 12 cameras lined up that were triggered to photograph in rapid succession by the galloping horse.
The series of images Muybridge captured didn’t just prove that a horse does indeed take flight. They also led the way for a new way of using photography with other technology to capture the truth.
This method led the way for the development of animation and motion pictures.
#18 W. Eugene Smith | Country Doctor | 1948
“I do not seek to possess my subject but rather to give myself to it,”
W. Eugene Smith
Smith’s aim was to see the world from the perspective of his subjects and for the viewers looking at his work to do the same. This image is taken from his photo Essay “Country Doctor” was taken after Smith had spent 23 days with the subject.
Following the doctor around and really getting to know him, Smith was able to capture the essence of his subject through a single frame. This image and accompanying essay became a template for the form which many have emulated since.
But the image was part of the large photo essay which set a new standard for this genre of photography, photojournalism.
#19 Robert Capa | The Falling Soldier | 1936
Capa’s image of a Spanish militiaman being shot was taken without him ever looking through his viewfinder.
Captured by holding his camera above his head while in the trenches this image took war photography to a different level. Soon after, journalists began to be formally embedded into army units as their importance in capturing and documenting the horrors of war was realized.
#20 Harold Edgerton | Milk Drop Coronet | 1957
Electrical-engineering professor Edgerton began a series of experiments in his MIT lab, inventing a camera that would photograph a fleeting moment in the dark.
Combining high-tech strobe lighting and a camera shutter that would enable the photographer to capture a moment invisible to the naked eye. He set up a milk dropper next to a timer along with his camera.
His stop-motion photograph was able to freeze the impact of a drop of milk on a table and cemented photography’s importance in the world of advancing the human understanding of our physical world.
I want to remind you these are just 20 of the many really important images that have been created over the years. There are so many more significant photo and photographers, so I encourage you to continue reading and researching.
For starters, you can read about 12 Famous Portrait Photographers from History that You Need to Know and also 25 of the most famous photographers from the past who’ve taken the iconic photos you’re familiar with (or maybe not.)