More than any other art form, photography has a decisive ability to transport the viewer to a particular place and moment. It could be a moment of elation, sadness, desperation, or any other feeling, but for over a century photography has documented and shaped the course of history, with a select few having a lasting legacy.
Something as simple as a still photograph can have a transformative effect. In the right hands, a camera is a tool of exploration, a passport to an inner sanctum, or an exciting instrument for change that can bring about revolution and influence public thinking.
A picture has the power to inflame the senses and move people to act. The photo could be an impulsive, spontaneous moment of everyday life – that which the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson would come to describe as the ‘decisive moment’ – or it could be something more staged, but either way the photograph’s influence on culture is undeniable.
From instants from everyday city life, to defining moments in history, acts of bravery and courage, shocking moments of violence and war, love, and happiness – the camera has been at every moment of history in the past century, and we’ve picked 20 of our favourites.
Alfred Stieglitz – The Steerage (1907)
Alfred Stieglitz was a pioneer of photography who helped change the way many viewed photography and elevate it to a fine art in America in the late 19th and early 20th century.
One of the first modernist photographs, The Steerage depicts the photographer’s own journey from the States to Europe to visit relatives and friends when he happened upon a view looking down toward the lower class passenger area, known on most ships as “the steerage”.
Today considered Stieglitz’s signature work, he later described it as, “another milestone in photography…a step in my own evolution, a spontaneous discovery,” paving the way for Henri Cartier-Bresson to follow in his footsteps. This new style of photography was published in a 1911 issue of Camera Work devoted to his photographs, alongside a Cubist drawing by Pablo Picasso.
Henri Cartier-Bresson – Place de l’Europe Gare Saint Lazare (1932)
The godfather of modern photojournalism inspired generations of amateur street photographers. Cartier-Bresson created a legacy thanks to the remarkable spontaneity of his work, and it remains as vibrant, vivid, and powerful as it did close to 100 years ago.
Cartier-Bresson masterfully captured spontaneous moments of everyday life that he termed the ‘decisive moment’ which is perfectly expressed in his impulsive masterpiece of a man suspended in mid-air as he hops over a large puddle. It captures the dynamic movement of his unaware subject in that ‘decisive moment’ before his heel hits the water, creating a sense of anticipation.
Captured outside the bustling Saint Lazare train station in Paris, the ‘decisive moment’ took full advantage of the advancing technology with the latest camera, lens, and film. This helps Cartier-Bresson to pick out the contrasting ornamented spiked fence with the hazy building in the background and the still clearness of the reflection in the urban setting. The jumper is even mirrored in a poster behind him of a dancer leaping enthusiastically into the air for the Railowsky circus.
Charles Ebbets – Lunch atop a Skyscraper (1932)
Depicting ironworkers taking a nerve-shredding break from constructing the 70 floors of the art deco skyscraper at 30 Rockefeller Plaza, the image of workers perched far above the city is notable for capturing the bravery of the men and the casual nature with which they share lunch and cigarettes.
The daredevil’s lunch break has come to personify the perspiration and determination that built the USA and been referenced in popular culture many times over the years, notably in a promotional poster for the TV show, Friends.
Purporting to capture an impulsive moment, the photo was actually staged. “You see the picture once, you never forget it,” Rockefeller Center archivist Christine Roussel told Time magazine. But “the funniest part about the photographs,” she said, “were they were done for publicity.”
Dorothea Lange – Migrant Mother (1936)
Taken in Nipomo, California during the height of the Great Depression to raise awareness of and provide aid to impoverished farmers, Dorothea Lange’s powerful portrait is the epitome of motherly concern.
Employed by the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration, Lange’s timeless photo of Florence Owens Thompson and her children resting on her shoulders in a camp for people devastated by the failure of the pea crops is filled with apprehension and emotion.
Lange’s work is considered to be a part of the classic canon of American art and international photography, which has become a symbol of the plight of migrant farm workers during the Great Depression. A print can be seen in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City.
Robert Capa – The Falling Soldier (1936)
Co-founder of the Magnum Photos cooperative of photographers along with Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa’s image depicting the death of a soldier during the Spanish Civil War is one of history’s most famous and captivating war photographs.
Foreshadowing Eddie Adams’ Saigon Execution (more on that later), which similarly showed the moment of death, The Falling Soldier was incredibly captured by Capa holding his camera above his head in the trenches, taking war photography to a different, more personal level.
The expressive image brings to mind an equally famous image of war in Spain, Francisco Goya’s The Third of May, 1808 (1814) and prompted the British magazine Picture Post to label Capa “the greatest war photographer in the world” in 1938.
Sam Shere – Hindenburg (1937)
It was the largest airship in production when it docked in Manchester Township, New Jersey after making the slow Atlantic crossing from Frankfurt, but the Hindenburg tragically exploded on impact with its mooring mast at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, killing 36 people.
The airship burns brightly, as its huge structure is engulfed in flames, instantaneously ending the era of passenger airships that were hailed as the future of the travel in the 1920s and 30s, along with many of the passengers on board.
“I had two shot in my (camera) but I didn’t even have to get it up to my eye,” said Shere. “I literally shot from the hip – it was over so fast there was nothing else to do.” Shere’s moment in time is a powerful image that found a new reference in later life as the cover art for Led Zeppelin’s first album, which sold for $325,000 at Christie’s in June 2020.
Yousuf Karsh – The Roaring Lion (1941)
Shot on December 30 1941 in the Speaker’s Chamber of the Canadian House of Commons in Ottawa, Armenian-Canadian photographer Yousuf Karsh’s portrait perfectly encapsulates British Prime Minister, Winston Churchill’s defiant and bullish temperament.
Following The Blitz (a concerted Nazi bombing campaign against the United Kingdom in 1940 and 1941), Churchill’s defiant scowl is a reflection of the UK’s perseverance in the face of an all-conquering enemy. However, it might also have been because he was denied his trusty companion – his cigar.
Churchill refused to put down his cigar for the portrait, so Karsh quickly took it from his mouth and said “forgive me sir”. Karsh said, “by the time I got back to the camera, he looked so belligerent, he could have devoured me”. Churchill later commented, “You can even make a roaring lion stand still to be photographed,” giving the picture its proud name.
Alfred Eisenstaedt – V-J Day in Times Square (1945)
Portraying a U.S. Navy sailor kissing a stranger on Victory over Japan Day (V-J Day) in Times Square at the end of World War II, Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo has become one of the most recognisable and imitated photos of the 20th century. The couple in the photo remained anonymous for years, before a 2016 book revealed them to be George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer Friedman.
“In Times Square on V.J. Day I saw a sailor running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight,” said Eisenstaedt. “Then suddenly, in a flash, I saw something white being grabbed. I turned around and clicked the moment the sailor kissed the nurse. If she had been dressed in a dark dress I would never have taken the picture. If the sailor had worn a white uniform, the same. I took exactly four pictures. It was done within a few seconds.”
The iconic image has crossed over into popular culture, popping up in The Simpsons, the film Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian, and Amanda Seyfried film Letter To Juliet, while in 2005, John Seward Johnson II displayed a bronze life-size sculpture, Unconditional Surrender, at a 60th-anniversary re-enactment in Times Square.
Joe Rosenthal – Flag Raising at Iwo Jima (1945)
More than a symbolic flag raising during World War II, Joe Rosenthal’s 1945 photo transcended its time and location to become a symbol of national pride and unity in the war years. Today the image has been immortalized in a statue at the United States Marine Corps War Memorial in Arlington, Virginia.
The photograph earned Rosenthal a Pulitzer Prize, as well as a lasting legacy that would see his world famous photo become one of the most widely reproduced images of the century. It appeared on 3.5 million posters for the seventh war bond drive, a 1945 U.S. postage stamp commemorating the battle of Iwo Jima, and a 2005 Marine Corps 230th Anniversary silver dollar, as well as the 1949 film, Sands of Iwo Jima, in which the three surviving flag raisers make a cameo appearance.
However, the photo has also attracted controversy and claims that Rosenthal staged the patriotic scene, as it was the second raising of a flag that day. The first flag to be placed atop Mount Suribachi had been raised hours earlier but was deemed too small to be seen from the base of the mountain.
Arthur Sasse – Albert Einstein (1951)
Widely acknowledged as one of the most influential physicists of all time, Einstein is fêted for developing the theory of relativity. Perhaps the best known portrait of the German-born physicist is Arthur Sasse’s light-hearted portrait.
It was Einstein’s 72nd birthday in 1951 and he celebrated at The Princeton Club. Goaded to smile for the camera, he impetuously stuck out his tongue, with Sasse on hand to snap the iconic shot, while other photographers surrounding the car missed it.
Showcasing a light and nutty professor side to the celebrated scientist rather than the serious one that many assumed about the man, the photo softened the perception of Einstein, which he seemingly liked as he ordered nine copies. A signed copy sold at auction sold for $72,300, making it the most expensive Einstein photograph ever sold.
Sam Shaw – Marilyn Monroe (1954)
Marilyn Monroe’s star remains as high today, as it did in 1954 when photographer Robert Shaw arranged a publicity shot for the film Seven Year Itch outside the Trans-Lux Theatre on Lexington Avenue, at around 2am.
Despite the late hour, crowds gathered to watch one of Hollywood’s most adored sex symbols cement her image. The photo is synonymous with Monroe’s image as a contemporary Aphrodite and an icon of beauty and glamor, but it proved too much for her then husband, Joe DiMaggio, who was there and became enraged with jealousy. They divorced weeks later.
The cultural significance of the scene was confirmed in 2011 when Monroe’s original white dress was sold at auction for $4.6 million.
Robert H Jackson – Assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald (1963)
The world was still reeling from the assassination of John F Kennedy when photographer Robert H Jackson was on hand to catch the decisive moment (Cartier-Bresson would be proud) that a vigilante idea of justice was metered out to the man who had changed the course of history.
What’s striking in the image is the incongruity of all. It almost looks like a normal crowded scene of people, but for Oswald grimacing and the assassin, Dallas nightclub owner, Jack Ruby holding a gun.
The photo won a Pulitzer Prize for its author. Ruby was tried for murder, but appealed his conviction. He died before the start of a new trial. The power of the image lives on though.
Malcolm Browne – Burning Monk (1963)
The searing intensity of Malcolm Browne’s iconic photo of a burning monk in Saigon is captivating. To many, it seems impossible that someone would set themselves on fire and even less likely that they would appear so calm and composed during such an incredible act of protest, but that’s what the monk Thich Quang Duc did on June 11, 1963, on a Saigon street in Vietnam.
Protesting over discrimination toward Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, Malcolm Browne’s photo remains an iconic image of the Vietnam War, even amidst a mountain of shocking images that would shock the American public in the following years.
The photo had an international impact and earned Browne the Pulitzer Prize for International Reporting, as well as the World Press Photo of the Year in 1963. As for the car, it’s on display as a tourist attraction in the town of Huế.
Neil Leifer – Muhammad Ali v Sonny Liston (1965)
“I am the greatest,” bellowed Muhammad Ali on numerous occasions, and nowhere is that authority better exemplified than in Neil Leifer’s image of a domineering and roaring Ali standing over Liston, flat out on the canvas after only one minute and 44 seconds.
It was May 25th 1965 and the fight didn’t start until 10.40pm, by which time the ring was filled with a cocktail of blue smoke from cigarettes and strobe lighting. The effect gave Ali an ethereal quality in Leifer’s photo and allowed the clashing colors of red gloves and white shorts to dramatically stand out.
Leifer later said “I was obviously in the right seat, but what matters is I didn’t miss. That’s what separates best sports photographers from the ones that are just good — you have to get lucky in sports photography.”
Eddie Adams – Saigon Execution (1969)
The moment of an execution is rarely committed to film, and rarely does it have such an impact beyond the devastating moment of death. That’s what Eddie Adam’s photo achieved, when he was on the scene during the chaos of the Tet Offensive to capture the instant that South Vietnamese general Nguyễn Ngọc Loan summarily executed Viet Cong captain Nguyễn Văn Lém
The Associated Press photographer’s image was seen around the world and galvanized the growing anti-war movement in the United States. The devastating image won Adams the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, but at a personal cost.
“I was getting money for showing one man killing another. Two lives were destroyed, and I was getting paid for it. I was a hero.” He elaborated on this in a later piece of writing: “Two people died in that photograph. The general killed the Viet Cong; I killed the general with my camera.”
Iain Macmillan – Abbey Road (1969)
The Beatles were the biggest band in the world as the end of the sixties approached, but were coming to their Indian Summer by the time of their penultimate album, Abbey Road, when Scottish photographer Macmillan was hired for the shoot, after being introduced to the band by Yoko Ono.
Photographed outside the Beatles’ studio, Macmillan perched on a stepladder in the middle of Abbey Road and took six pictures of the Beatles crossing the street, with a policeman on hand to control traffic. One of those images would become synonymous with the Fab Four and would be seen the world over.
The anonymous location of a crossing in the quiet north London neighbourhood of St. John’s Wood has become a pilgrimage for tourists to this day, highlighting the impact that the photo has had on devoted pop fans for over 50 years.
John Filo – Kent State shooting (1970)
John Filo was in the university student photography lab when shots rang out during an anti-war demonstration protesting the expansion of the Cambodian Campaign in 1970 at Kent State University. Rushing outside, he captured the aftermath of Ohio National Guardsmen opening fire on a crowd of students, killing four people and wounding nine.
The image of a body lying prone on the floor is exaggerated by the anguish on the face of 14-year-old runaway Mary Ann Vecchio, kneeling over the dead body of 20-year-old Jeffrey Miller. Expressing anger, shock, and anguish, Filo’s photo won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1971.
“I knew I was running out of film. I could see the emotion welling up inside of her. She began to sob,” said Filo of the photo that momentously captured the first time that a student had been killed in an anti-war gathering in United States history.
Nick Ut – The Terror of War (“Napalm Girl”) (1972)
“The horror of the Vietnam War recorded by me did not have to be fixed” said Nick Ut of his harrowing image of nine-year-old Phan Thi Kim Phuc running towards the camera, howling in pain in the haunting aftermath of an accidental South Vietnamese plane bombing, which burned the clothes from her back and left her with severe burns.
Ut helped the girl receive lifesaving treatment before filing the image, which harrowingly communicated the horrors of the war and fed growing anti-war sentiment in the U.S, while its appearance on newspaper front pages across America showed the importance of its news value.
The photograph earned Ut worldwide recognition and a wealth of accolades, including the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Spot News Photography, the 1973 World Press Photo of the Year, and the National Medal of Arts, the highest award given to artists and arts patrons by the federal government.
Steve McCurry – Afghan Girl (1984)
Surrounded by a vivid red and turquoise green frame, Steve McCurry’s visually arresting image of a 12-year-old Pashtun orphan in the Nasir Bagh refugee camp near Peshawar, Pakistan conveys a wealth of emotion, which is contained within her piercing green eyes and fixed expression.
“I noticed this one little girl with these incredible eyes, and I instantly knew that this was really the only picture I wanted to take,” said McCurry, whose earlier photos of rebel-controlled areas of Afghanistan before the Soviet invasion earned him the Robert Capa Gold Medal for Best Photographic Reporting from Abroad.
Documenting the migration of Afghan refugees during the Soviet conflict, it was the first time the girl (later identified as Sharbat Gula) had ever been photographed, and was voted The Most Recognized Photograph in the history of the National Geographic magazine.
Jeff Widener – Tank Man (1989)
Capturing a moment of incredible individual bravery, Jeff Widener’s photo of a single protestor facing down a line of tanks in Tiananmen Square in the aftermath of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 became a symbol of defiance against oppression.
The photo earned Widener worldwide acclaim and nomination for the 1990 Pulitzer Prize. The high vantage point of the image showed the scale of the unidentified man’s bravery, who was holding two shopping bags, grounding the act in the everyday.
Taken from his hotel window after a stray rock hit him in the head during a mob scene on the Chang-An Boulevard the previous day, Widener almost didn’t capture the famous image and had to borrow a roll of film from an Australian tourist staying in the hotel.