When it comes to unforgettable photos, these are the most influential of all time. These images changed the world and the way people look at important events in history. Come on a journey with us as we go through the most influential images of all time, starting with the oldest and ending with the most recent. And the most recent is one you probably saw in real time, at a largely famous awards show.
Capturing the Crime and Poverty of New York City: Bandit’s Roost, 59½ Mulberry Street, 1888
New York City in the late 1800s was attracted mane of the world’s immigrants, and most of them found themselves in the filth of the unpaved streets. Reporter and photographer Jacob Riis documented it, and this photo was one of the most important of his collection.
He went into the city’s most unpromising neighborhoods to capture their crime, poverty, and overcrowding. This scene is of the Lower East Side street gang.
Exposing Child Labor: Cotton Mill Girl, 1908
Lewis Hine was an investigative photographer for the National Child Labor Committee. He thought that if he documented child labor, it would force citizens to demand a change. It wasn’t easy for him to get into these places, so he had to pose as a Bible seller, insurance agent or industrial photographer.
He documented children working in meatpacking houses and coal mines. This particular photo is of a girl named Sadie Pfeifer who he felt was the perfect subject for a photo that he could expose to the world. She was “one of the many small children at work” at a cotton-spinning machine in Lancaster, South Carolina. This photo and others of his led to regulatory legislation and cut the number of child laborers to about half from 1910 to 1920.
The next iconic photo is one of the most celebrated portraits in history.
Changing Perceptions of Workers: A Portrait of a Bricklayer, 1928
August Sander’s photography was aimed at portraying doctors, farmers, chefs and beggars with a certain blunt directness. Sanders wanted to show that we can learn from all layers of society, saying, “We can tell from appearance the work someone does or does not do; we can read in his face whether he is happy or troubled, for life unavoidably leaves its trace there.”
This image is considered his best portrait, of a bricklayer in Cologne, Germany. He wanted to show that although he’s a laborer, which requires sweat and hard work, he’s still proud. These photos changed the way people looked at workers.
The Beginning of the Future of Modern Photography: Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare, 1932
Photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson, on a day in 1932, pointed his camera through a fence behind the Saint-Lazare train station in Paris. This photo is considered a masterpiece of form and light. A man is leaping across the water, resembling the dancers in the poster on the wall behind him.
Timing was a major for this photographer. He even had a term for being able to immortalize a fleeting scene on camera – he called it the “Decisive Moment. This fast, moving, detail-obsessed style changed the future of all of modern photography.
You’ve probably seen the next photograph, but likely don’t know the story behind it.
Fearless Men: Having Lunch On Top of a Skyscraper, 1932
Unfortunately, the source of this photo is unknown, despite how famous it is. It’s a dangerously playful moment captured of 11 men eating nonchalantly, talking and smoking. It is as though they aren’t aware that they’re sitting 840 feet above the city of Manhattan. Either that or they just don’t have any fear in them at all.
These men are construction workers who built the Rockefeller Center. The photo was taken on the 69th floor of the flagship RCA Building and was actually staged as part of a promotional campaign for the skyscraper. This image became the symbol of American resilience and ambition in an era which needed both. It has also become an icon of the fearlessness of New Yorkers. You can find this image on anything from a wall painting to t-shirts, to mugs.
Challenging Perceptions: A Couple in Raccoon Coats, 1932
Back in the 1930s, black people were largely ignored and rather invisible. Photographer James VanDerZee wanted to change the way the world looked at African Americans in popular culture. He photographed Harlem weddings, funerals, clubs and families.
James VanDerZee/ Time
VanDerZee’s portraits were thoroughly staged to celebrate his subjects. This particular photo portrayed the pride of a rather attractive couple wearing raccoon coats next to a Cadillac roadster. His photos challenged the popular perceptions mostly white people had about race, class and success.
Next is a mysterious photo and the source has been debated until today.
The Hoax of the Century: Loch Ness Monster, 1934
This photo was supposedly taken by British doctor Robert Wilson in April 1934, but it hasn’t been confirmed. Wilson was sent to cover up a previous fraud by wild-game hunter Marmaduke Wetherell who was supposed to catch the monster of the water. They both created fraudulent images.
The Loch Ness image is one that conspiracy theorists and fable seekers love. This is an image from the pre-Photoshop days and people believed what they saw. Today, we know better. This photo nonetheless created havoc at the time.
The Face of Suffering: A Migrant Mother, 1936
This picture humanized the cost of the Great Depression. Photographer Dorothea Lange drove through “Pea-Pickers Camp” in Nipomo, north of Los Angeles. She stopped when she saw this woman, whose name was Frances Owens Thompson. “I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother in the sparse lean-to tent, as if drawn by a magnet,” Lange later wrote.
The crops on their farm were frozen and there was no work, so 32-year-old Thompson sold the tires from her car to buy food. After she captured the images on that day, she reported it to the Resettlement Administration and they sent 20,000 pounds of food. This intimate portrait essentially gave a face to a suffering nation.
The next photo has an incredible story of how the photo was taken.
“You May Take One”, Winston Churchill, 1941
When this photo was taken of Winston Churchill, Britain was standing alone by a mere thread. And he was determined not to fall like the other European nations. This photo was taken in Canada where he was thanking the allies for their help, unaware that he was being photographed. When he noticed he asked photographer Yousuf Karsh, “Why was I not told?”
He then lit a cigar and said to Karsh, “You may take one.” When Karsh was ready, he walked over to Churchill and said, “Forgive me, sir,” and took the cigar out of his mouth. “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.” Churchill smiled and said, “You may take another one” and later shook Karsh’s hand, saying to him, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed.”
This ended up being one of the most widely reproduced photos in history. This particular photograph allowed modern photographers to make honest and critical portrayals of the world’s leaders.
Pre-Civil Rights America: “American Gothic”, 1942
This was taken in Washington in 1942 at the Farm Security Administration (FSA) at a time when racism was prevalent. “White restaurants made me enter through the back door. White theaters wouldn’t even let me in the door,” Gordon Parks, the photographer, said. He wanted to find older African Americans to reveal how they dealt with such daily struggles.
This is Ella Watson, who worked in the FSA. He photographed her as she went about her day, creating this photo titled American Gothic. It showed the treatment of African Americans and symbolized life in pre-civil-rights America. The photographer eventually became the first African-American photographer at LIFE.
Next up, an iconic image of a blonde bombshell from the 1940s who was the inspiration for Playboy.
The Inspiration for Playboy: Betty Grable, 1943
Betty Grable was a Hollywood starlet who represented the real “girl back home,” in an era when American soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines needed it badly. Frank Powolny, a photographer for 20th Century Fox, was taking pictures of her for a 1943 film, agreeing to do a “back shot.” It was one of the first real pinups, and quickly troops were requesting 50,000 copies per month.
She helped countless homesick young men in the fight of their lives. Even Hugh Hefner, young at that time, said she was the inspiration for Playboy. “I’ve got to be an enlisted man’s girl,” Betty said, signing thousands of her posters during the war. “Just like this has got to be an enlisted man’s war.”
Victory: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, 1945
On the fifth day of battle, American marines captured Mount Suribachi. They raised an American flag immediately but a commander wanted a bigger one to inspire his men and demoralize his enemies. Photographer Joe Rosenthal came with them to the top of the mountain, stepped back to get a better frame and apparently almost missed the shot.
He said, “The wind just whipped the flag out over the heads of the group, and at their feet the disrupted terrain and the broken stalks of the shrubbery exemplified the turbulence of war.” Two days later his photo was on the front pages of American newspapers and became a symbol of unity in the war. Rosenthal won a Pulitzer Prize for this image, and it was even made into a postage stamp and made as a 100-ton bronze memorial statue.
The next photo is a hugely famous and romantic moment captured at the end of WWII. Do you recall which one it is?
A Storytelling Moment: Times Square, 1945
Alfred Eisenstaedt, this photographer, had a mission “to find and catch the storytelling moment.” This was the moment World War II ended on August 14, 1945. He went to the streets of New York City and found himself in the joyous celebrations in Times Square. He saw a sailor in front of him grab hold of a nurse, tilt her back and kiss her. And of course, he captured the moment.
This photograph turned into the most famous and largely reproduced image of the 20th century. “People tell me that when I’m in heaven,” Eisenstaedt said, “they will remember this picture.”
Collaborating with the Subjects: “Dali Atomicus”, 1948
The photographer, Philippe Halsman, wanted to capture the essence of Surrealist painter Salvador Dalí. This was inspired by Dalí’s painting Leda Atomica, and he created an elaborate scene to portray it. His assistants stood out of the frame and, on his count, threw three cats and a bucket of water into the air while Dalí jumped up. It took them 26 takes to capture a composition that satisfied him.
Halsman redefined portrait photography and inspired photographers in the coming generations to collaborate with their subjects and create interesting photographs that portrayed them as individuals.
Next up, the best baseball player that ever lived. Can you name him?
The End of an Era: Babe Ruth, 1948
Babe Ruth, arguably the best ballplayer of all time, but in 1948, he had been out of the game for more than a decade and was battling terminal cancer. Here, the Bambino stood before a huge crowd on June 13 to celebrate the anniversary of Yankee Stadium and publicly retired.
Nat Fein/ Time
Nat Fein, the photographer, “got a feeling” and walked behind Ruth, where he was leaning on the bat. Two months later, Ruth passed away, and Fein won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph. It was the first prize awarded to a sports photographer.
A Man of Peace, Held Prisoner: Gandhi, 1946
Gandhi was held prisoner by the British at Yeravda prison in Pune, India, from 1932 to 1933. He would make his own thread with a charkha, a portable spinning wheel. It was apparently a source of personal comfort and he encouraged his countrymen to make their own cloth instead of buying British products.
When Margaret Bourke-White, this photographer, wanted to photograph Gandhi, his secretary told her that she had to learn the craft before taking a photo of the leader. This photo was only published after Gandhi’s assassination. This image helped ground the perception of Gandhi as a man of peace.
The next influential image was of the beautiful political couple of the 50s. Guess who?
America, Meet John and Jackie, 1953
John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Jacqueline Lee Bouvier wre photographed here by Hy Peskin, who was supposed to capture a moment to show America who they were. This was before they married.
The scene was set: the “playboy” was to say goodbye to bachelorhood. America was quickly captivated by the two from this image and John and Jackie were off to become the most recognizable couple on the planet.
A Few Weeks Before Rosa Parks: Trolley in New Orleans, 1955
The photo was taken a few weeks before Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama. And the moment was unplanned. The photographer was shooting a street parade when he saw this trolley going by. He raised his camera and took the shot just before it disappeared from his view.
The next image is a true beauty, and one featuring a model, elephants, and a Dior dress.
Combining Art, Fashion, and Photography: Dovima with Elephants, 1955
Photographer Richard Avedon, one of the most famous fashion photographers, photographed Dovima, one of the world’s most famous models. And the result is one of the most famous fashion photographs of all time.
Avedon liked to take models out of the studio and put them against exciting backgrounds, combining fashion photography and art.
A Revolutionary Method: “Milk Drop Coronet”, 1957
Harold Edgerton used a milk dropper, a timer, and a camera of his own invention for this photo. It occurred in the 1950s in his lab at MIT, starting a process that would change the future of photography. The professor combined high-tech strobe lights with camera shutter motors to capture moments that couldn’t be seen with the naked eye.
Milk Drop Coronet is a stop-motion photograph, which was revolutionary at the time. This picture helped advance the human understanding of the physical world.
The next photo was so important it can be seen pretty much everywhere.
Forever a Symbol: Che Guevara, 1960
This is by far the most iconic photograph of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. And a day before this was taken, a ship exploded in Havana Harbor, killing the crew and dozens of dockworkers. After Guevara was killed seven years later, the Cuban regime saw him as a martyr, and this image became forever a symbolic one.
It appears on everything from protest art to t-shirts to drinks. It’s one of the most recognizable and reproduced images of all time.
The Most Successful Real Esatate Image: Case Study House, Los Angeles, 1960
In May 1960, photographer Julius Shulman captured an architectural experiment in LA. He helped demystify modernism by showing its simplicity and angular edges. Case Study House No. 22 was the most influential.
He chose to put two glamorous women in cocktail dresses in the house, where they look as though they’re floating above the city. This photo became the most successful real estate image ever taken.
Leaping into Freedom, 1961
Photographer Peter Leibing and other cameramen watched as a West Berlin crowd enticed 19-year-old border guard Hans Conrad Schumann, by yelling at him, “Come on over!” Schumann later said because he didn’t want to “live enclosed,” he chose to run for it, making the jump.
This photo ran on newspapers’ front pages all over the world. He was the first known East German soldier to flee, becoming a poster child for those wanting to be free.
“Lost in Each Other’s Eyes”: Nuit de Noel, 1963
Photographer Sidibé shot thousands of photos that captured the euphoria of the end of the French colonial ruling in 1960. On Christmas Eve in 1963, Sidibé saw a young couple at a club, “lost in each other’s eyes.”
He said, “We were entering a new era, and people wanted to dance. Music freed us. Suddenly, young men could get close to young women, hold them in their hands. Before, it was not allowed. And everyone wanted to be photographed dancing up close.”
The next image is the moment the Beatles heard they hit #1 in America.
Hearing the Good News: The Pillow Fight, 1964
Apparently, photographer Harry Benson didn’t even want to meet the Beatles. He was supposed to cover a news story in Africa but was assigned to photograph the musicians in Paris instead. “I took myself for a serious journalist and I didn’t want to cover a rock ’n’ roll story,” he explained.
But once he met them and heard them play, he didn’t want to leave. “I thought, ‘God, I’m on the right story.’” His photo was taken in the George V Hotel the night the band found out “I Want to Hold Your Hand” reached No. 1 in the U.S. The next month, Benson joined the Beatles as started “the British Invasion.” It eventually led to decades of collaboration with the group and Benson later said, “I was so close to not being there.”
The Champ: Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston, 1965
Sports illustrated photographer Neil Leifer shot the greatest sports photo of the century. “I was obviously in the right seat, but what matters is I didn’t miss,” he said. Ali’s right fist hit Liston’s chin and Liston went down, one minute and 44 seconds into the first round.
He snapped the photo of the champ standing victorious over his defeated opponent and taunting him, saying “Get up and fight, sucker!”
Propoganda at its Best: Chairman Mao Swims in the Yangtze, 1966
Chinese Communist Leader Mao Zedong started to worry about how he would be remembered after his long reign of the nation. At 72 years, he wanted to control his legacy. As a propaganda move, he took a dip in the Yangtze River to show the world that he was still in good health.
The photo taken of that swim was one of the few circulated photos of the leader. And then his power was fiercer than ever.
A New Era of Photojournalism: Invasion of Prague, 1968
Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia on August 20, 1968 and quickly seized control of Prague. But they also met tons of flag-waving citizens who put up barricades, stoned tanks, overturned trucks and removed street signs to confuse the troops.
This photo showing a man’s arm in the foreground wearing a wristwatch is the moment of the Soviet invasion in front of a deserted street. It beautifully encapsulates time, loss and emptiness—and the strangling of a society. This photo redefined photojournalism and his pictures were smuggled out of Czechoslovakia and were published in the London Sunday Times in 1969 under the pseudonym P.P. for Prague Photographer. He fled the country and said “I was afraid to go back to Czechoslovakia because I knew that if they wanted to find out who the unknown photographer was, they could do it.”
The Launching of the Environmental Movement: Earth Rising, 1968
On December 24, 1968, 75 hours, 48 minutes and 41 seconds after the Apollo 8 spacecraft left Cape Canaveral, it started the first manned mission to orbit the moon. Astronauts Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve.
William Anders, NASA/Time
“Oh, my God! Look at that picture over there! Here’s the Earth coming up. Wow, is that pretty!” Anders shouted. It was the first full-color view of our planet from space and it launched the environmental movement.
The next photo is also from the moon by a famous astronaut. Remember him?
The Man on the Moon, 1968
Armstrong was carrying the crew’s 70-millimeter camera and took all of the pictures, but Buzz Aldrin climbed down the ladder of the lunar spaceship and saluted the American flag.
Neil Armstrong, NASA/Time
While standing there, on the moon, Armstrong is seen in the reflection on his helmet taking the photo.
A Public Figure: Jackie, 1971
Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, the beautiful young widow of the assassinated President. She became a public figure with hardly any private life, photographers followed her everywhere she went. Ron Galella was devoted to capturing the best image of her. He hopped in a taxi and followed her after seeing her on New York City’s Upper East Side in October 1971.
“I don’t think she knew it was me,” he said. “That’s why she smiled a little.” He called this shot “my Mona Lisa.” Jackie hated the constant attention and even took Galella to court and got him banned from photographing her family.
Deceiving and Captivating: “City Girl”, 1978
Cindy Sherman took inventive and purposefully confusing self-portraits. She started a new movement of photography as postmodern performance art. Her images put the viewer in a role of voyeur.
Sherman used photography to deceive and captivate people and the photos became some of the most valuable ever. She made a new place for photography in fine art.
Athletes as Commercial Property: Michael Jordon, 1984
This is the most famous silhouette ever made. The basketball superstar soared through the air for a dunk, looking like a ballet dancer, with his arm reaching for the stars. Nike paid the photographer $150 to use his slides temporarily. Soon, “Jumpman” was put on their new shoes, clothing and walls around the world. It was and still is one of the most popular commercial icons of all time.
Nike created a new concept of athletes being commercial properties. The photographer sued Nike for copyright infringement.
The Beginning of a New Digital Era: Cowboy, 1989
Photographer Richard Prince caught view of the macho image of the Marlboro Man while skimming through magazines. He began a process he called rephotography, taking pictures of ads, cropping out the type, and leaving only the cowboy and his surroundings. In 2005, this image was sold for $1.2 million at auction, which was at the time, the highest recorded price for a contemporary photograph.
He was later sued by a photographer for using copyrighted images, but he won the case in the end. His method created a new art form—photography of photography. It was the beginning of a new digital era of photo sharing and changed what we consider a photo’s authenticity and ownership.
Interstellar Dust: Pillars of Creation, 1995
On April 1, 1995, the Hubble Space Telescope shot an image of the universe so exquisite that it was called the Pillars of Creation. This is the Eagle Nebula, a star-forming patch of space 6,500 light-years from Earth in the constellation Serpens Cauda. The smokestacks are clouds of interstellar dust.
The black area on the top right is from cameras’ magnification. The pillars are 5 light-years, or 30 trillion miles, long.
The First Cell Phone Picture, 1997
Philippe Kahn was in a Northern California maternity ward and had nothing to do. He was a software entrepreneur, and was sent out by his wife while she gave birth to their daughter. So Kahn made a make-shift device that could send a photo of his newborn to his friends and family in real time. It was basically a digital camera connected to his flip-top cell phone, with a few lines of code he wrote on his laptop in the hospital.
His rudimentary device captured his daughter’s first moments and it was sent instantly to more than 2,000 people. In 2000, Sharp used Kahn’s technology to make the first available integrated camera phone in Japan.
Art Imitating Life: “99 Cent”, 1999
A photo of cheap products ended up making a record for the most expensive contemporary photograph ever sold. How ironic. It was taken in a 99 Cents Only store in Los Angeles.
The German architect and photographer used digital manipulation and a certain composition to turn everyday experiences into art. In 2006, 99 Cent sold for $2.3 million at an auction.
The Only Public Image of This Moment: The Situation Room, 2011
On May 1, 2011, the Situation Room was intensely watching as U.S. forces raided Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan home and killed him. Yet Souza’s picture includes neither the raid nor bin Laden. President Barack Obama is seen staring, looking worried. And Hillary Clinton is covering her mouth, waiting.
That evening, Obama announced that bin Laden had been killed. This photo and the tension it portrays is the only public image of this moment.
Next, the most recent hugely influential photo that changed everything.
The Oscars Selfie, 2014
During the 2014 Oscars, Ellen DeGeneres went into the crowd and gathered some of the world’s biggest stars in for a selfie. Bradley Cooper held the phone, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence and Kevin Spacey, and others, pressed their faces together and mugged. But what Ellen did next was she posted it on Twitter, and it was retweeted over 3 million times, more than any other photo in history.
Photo by Ellen DeGeneres/Twitter via Getty Images
It also served Samsung because Ellen used one of their phones for the stunt, and the brand was displayed in the “selfie moment.”