There are plenty of important milestones and events throughout American history, and the past decades have given us the ability to capture those moments forever through photography. Journalists and photographers who have been fortunate enough to be in the midst of groundbreaking events have snapped some of the most memorable photos in the world. Here is our list that describes The Stories Behind The 15 Rarest and Most Iconic Photos. Spanning decades and the globe, these images will bring you back to some of the most pivotal moments in human history, as well as remind you of some figures that you may have forgotten about. From war and terrorism, to pop culture and politics, these images encompass the trials and tribulations of the world as we know it.
You may consider this list a trip down memory lane, or some terrifying memories, or a photographic history lesson. Or even all of the above. The photos will harken back to days gone by, but there are also some images here that are far too recent and still hurt to see. Of course, this list isn’t all about tragedy. We have images here that will celebrate iconic moments of human advancement and technology, as well as celebrity figures that are still recognized and revered to this day. It’s not all bad, and it’s not all good…sounds like real life, hm?
We invite you to take a look and read a bit more about some of the photos that you’ve seen numerous times. Odds are that you didn’t know the whole story. Heck, you might not have even known half the story!
15. Michael Collins’ Space Photo
This list is in no particular order because space exploration is super fascinating and important to human history, so don’t be too offended that it’s what we start our list out with. This photograph was taken by Michael Collins, who was traveling into space with Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin for the Apollo 11 mission. Collins’ photo encompassed the entire Earth, as well as the Lunar Module, in which Armstrong and Aldrin were traveling in. Collins was serving as the commander of the Apollo 11 mission, which would be his final space mission. During the mission, Collins stayed inside the Module while Armstrong and Aldrin walked the moon. Collins waited for nearly an entire Earth day for the two astronauts to return, and the entire time he feared for their safe return to the Module. Collins recorded his solitary experience during those hours in a diary, along with this iconic photo that has forever been recognized as one of the greatest space photos ever.
14. Black Power
Athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos did something revolutionary at the 1968 Olympic Games. After winning the gold and bronze medals respectively in the track and field’s 200-meter event, the Black athletes took to the podium along with silver medal winner, Australian Peter Norman. Tommie Smith and John Carlos took the moment while the victorious Star-Spangled Banner played for their winning country to make a powerful statement, and it was captured forever in a photograph. Smith and Carlos raised their fists in a display of Black power, although the athletes later said that the raised fists were a salute to human rights, not just Black rights. Even so, many people took the gesture to mean Black power, since the men wore black gloves on their fists. Smith and Carlos had planned to raise their fists during the anthem, and the reason Carlos is lifting his left fist is because he forgot his gloves and had to use Smith’s left one.
13. Dust Bowl Mother
A series of photographs taken in America’s Dust Bowl during the Great Depression have become some of the most pivotal and historical photo sets in the nation’s history. This particular photo probably looks somewhat familiar to you, as it has been shown and exhibited in various locations around the country and world. Dorthea Lange’s Migrant Mother from 1936 is an image that perfectly sums up the familial experience during the Great Depression. Families were struggling to make ends meet and feed their children, so they packed up their lives, took what they could, and made their way from the American Midwest to the west coast of California and Oregon. The Migrant Mother is depicted as a middle-aged woman with a couple of children by her side, her hair swept to the side and the lines in her face full of worry. These photographers were commissioned by the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration.
12. Sandy Hook Shooting
School shootings have unfortunately become far too common these days, sparking outrage and debates about gun control and safety in America’s schools. On December 14, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, was the backdrop for a gunman’s path to destruction. A journalist, Shannon Hicks, took this stunning and heart-wrenching photo as she watched the young children be escorted out of the school by teachers. The kids are clearly distraught in the photo and were instructed to place their arms on each other’s shoulders and leave the building in single file. One girl in the center of the picture looks particularly upset. The gunman ended up shooting and killing 20 school children, as well as six teachers and school administrators before taking his own life. He also shot and killed his mother. The Sandy Hook school shooting was the deadliest one in American history, even when compared to Columbine.
11. Tank Man
This photo was taken on June 5, 1989 in China’s Tiananmen Square. This was the iconic site of protests at the time, and a slew of huge tanks rolled down the street toward the square to disband the demonstrators. The tanks were manned by the Chinese military and they showed no signs of backing down. That is until Tank Man showed up. He was the lone protestor who took a real stand (literally) against the tanks, standing alone in the street as the tanks lined up before him.
The man remains unidentified to this day, but he became a symbol of defiance and bravery in communist China. So, what were these protests even about? The demonstration was made up mostly of students who opposed Mao Zedong’s economic, political, and social changes.
10. Marilyn Monroe’s Flirty White Dress
Everyone recalls Marilyn Monroe; she was one of the most popular sex symbols and was known both nationally and internationally. She was a voluptuous model and actress whose rendition of Happy Birthday to President Kennedy became the talk of the town back in the day. Monroe was widely known for her pin-up girl physique, and this iconic photo certainly does it justice. Many people have seen this image, yet few know just where it came from. The photo dates back to 1954, with Monroe posing over a sidewalk grate in New York City. She was photographed while in character for her role in The Seven Year Itch. Rumor has it that her husband, Joe DiMaggio, ended up divorcing her after going into a jealous rage at her public display of sexiness. In the film, Monroe portrayed a character known simply as “The Girl”. Ironic that she ended up being a total It Girl!
9. Operation Neptune Spear
On May 2, 2011, the leader of the terrorist group Al Qaeda, Osama bin Laden, was captured and killed by Navy SEALs. The strategy was known around the White House as Operation Neptune Spear, and this photo shows the tension and bated breath of those in the room of the White House as they watch the raid get underway. Among those in the picture are President Barack Obama, Hillary Rodham-Clinton, and members of the National Security Team. These individuals were granted direct surveillance to the Navy SEALs’ raid, which took place in bin Laden’s compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan. White House photographer Pete Souza was there to snap the photograph. It’s amazing to see the different expressions, whether it is President Obama with his elbows on his knees and a stern look on his face, Joe Biden with a furrowed brow, or Hillary Clinton with the hand over her mouth. Truly a moment in these individuals lives that they will never forget.
8. The Sailor’s Kiss
You have probably seen this photo of an American sailor taking a woman in his arms in Times Square and planting a big kiss on her lips. But what is the story behind this iconic image? The photo was taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who was in Times Square, New York City when a group of American sailors had returned from serving in World War II. Right in front of the photographer, a sailor, George Mendonsa, took Greta Zimmer Friedman by the waist, dipped her in his arms, and gave her a kiss that became synonymous with a soldier’s joyful return to his homeland. The couple’s identity was a mystery for years, and plenty of people tried to pass as the couple. The true names of the couple were eventually revealed, and Greta recalled the event, saying that a sailor took hold of her gently and gave her a nice peck. It was “a jubilant act” that she fondly remembers being a part of.
7. Napalm Girl in Vietnam
If there were people who were doubting the American war efforts in Vietnam back in the 1960s, then this iconic photo was enough to alter their perception. This black and white photo shows a group of children running away frantically while soldiers follow menacingly behind. In the center of the picture is a 9-year-old girl, Kim Phuc, who was forever remembered as the napalm girl from the Vietnam War. She was scurrying down Route 1 in Trang Bang on June 8, 1972, totally naked as she suffered burns to her entire body thanks to the use of napalm in an effort to attack the Viet Cong. The picture was taken by Associated Press photographer Nick Ut, who was startled by the running children. He wondered at first why the girl was without clothes and then realized that she had been burned by the napalm. This was the picture that made it overseas and helped the American public see that the war effort was doing much more harm than good.
6. Boston Marathon Bombing
The Boston Marathon is a yearly event that brings much excitement and enthusiasm to the Massachusetts city. Each year, participants line up to walk, jog, or just run the length of the marathon course while friends, family, and neighbors stand by and cheer them on. Yet the Boston Marathon of 2013 changed how the event was perceived forever. On April 15 of that year, two pressure cooker bombs exploded on the race course near Boylston Street, just 12 seconds apart from each other. Three people were killed and over 260 others were injured. This photo shows one of the runners, Bill Iffrig, a 76-year-old man, as he lay on the ground after being knocked over by one of the explosions. Iffrig actually ended up finishing the race, and the photo of him on the ground was later published in Sports Illustrated. From then on, the Boston Marathon has been highly policed.
5. Viet Cong Execution
Viewer discretion is advised for this iconic photo. The picture was taken by photographer Eddie Adams, and won the Pulitzer Prize for documenting the horrific series of events taking place in Vietnam in the 1960s. This photo shows a Viet Cong member, Nguyen Van Lem standing in the street while a Vietnamese police chief, Nguyen Ngoc Loan poises himself with a gun to the criminal’s head. Right there in broad daylight, in the middle of the street, the man was executed and the photo that snapped those split seconds before death has become iconic.
It is known as the Saigon Execution, and was taken on February 1, 1968. It was published in the New York Times, which helped it to reach a wide range of people throughout the United States, who had their eyes opened to the horrors occurring overseas. Photographer Adams later felt remorse for publicly exposing the police chief’s shooting.
4. The Falling Man
September 11, 2001 is still fresh in the minds of many Americans, and it will forever be remembered as one of the deadliest attacks on the nation. This is when forces from Al-Qaeda hijacked several planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center in New York, as well as at the Pentagon and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Nearly 3,000 deaths were documented, but there are still people who are missing. This photo of “The Falling Man” has haunted people for the past 15 years. The photo was taken by Richard Drew, who took photos of the event mere minutes after the attacks took place in New York City. Drew documented one man jumping from one of the Twin Towers’ top floors, falling head-first into the concrete below. The photo was temporarily banned from publishing, due to outrage from readers, but the photo is a demonstration of one man’s distinct message in the face of tragedy. He is believed to be an employee at the Windows on the World restaurant atop the North Tower.
3. Vulture and Child in Sudan
Most of us realize that the situation in Sudan is bleak, even today. The African nation has battled disease and illness, famine, and other dangers to its inhabitants. One photographer managed to snap the picture that would become the symbol of Sudan for years to come. Photographer Kevin Carter traveled to Sudan in 1993 and noticed a young girl making her way to the feeding center set up by the United Nations. The young Sudanese girl was struggling to walk, so she lay down on the ground and rested. That’s when a vulture, eyeing soon-to-be dead prey, landed nearby the girl and watched her for 20 minutes. Photographer Carter waited for the perfect juxtaposition, took the photo, and then scared the vulture off. The ensuing image was incredible, but also sparked outrage that the photographer was more interested in his job than in saving another human life – the girl was obviously starving to death.
2. Albert Einstein’s Funny Face
Anyone who knows about Albert Einstein knows that the man was always thinking outside of the box. This photo of the genius is one that continues to stand the test of time, and delight fans young and old. Why was such a prestigious man sticking his tongue out at the camera? Well, it was actually all just fun and games for the Nobel Prize-winning scientist. He was celebrating his 72nd birthday on March 14, 1951 and was leaving the bash with his friends (not shown in the picture.) Photographer Arthur Sasse got the photo of Einstein before he left, and the playful genius stuck his tongue out in a display of reverie and delight. The photo quickly became a huge hit, and Einstein himself was thrilled with how the picture came out. In fact, he asked Sasse for multiple copies of the photo so that he could send them to his friends and family as Christmas cards.
1. Iwo Jima Flag Raising
This photo has been solidified in United States history for decades. In fact, you may have seen this image emblazoned on T-shirts and as decals on the backs of trucks. Patriotic memorabilia is often quick to include this image, which shows six United States Marines hoisting up the American flag over the rubble of Mount Suribachi during World War II’s Battle of Iwo Jima. Taken on February 23, 1945, the image became highly symbolic of the battle between the Japanese and the Americans during World War II, and the sequence of events at Iwo Jima have been documented in various books and movies. The photo ended up winning the Pulitzer Prize for Photography later in 1945, and the three main Marines in the photo have been forever remembered as American heroes. The Marines were Sgt. Michael Strank, Corporal Harlon Block, and Private First Class Franklin Sousley. The image was recreated after 9/11.