Taking a cue from the remarks of the famous American photographer Ansel Adams that “a photograph is usually looked at, seldom looked into,” we decided to create a list of photographs that tell the amazing story of mankind — its sufferings and triumphs, its perseverance and failures.
1. The giant manta ray, 1938
This 1,200-lb manta ray was caught by a fishing guide named Forrest Walker. In this photo, we can see his friends Mr. John Hachmeister and Mrs. Earl Baum admiring the catch.
2. Unboxing the Statue of Liberty, 1885
Designed by Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi and built by Gustave Eiffel, the statue was dismantled and shipped to the US in early 1885. The finished statue consisted of 350 individual pieces and was shipped to the US in 214 crates.
The Statue of Liberty was presented to America by the people of France on July 4, 1884. The copper statue is of Libertas, the Roman goddess, bearing a torch and a “tabula ansata” inscribed in Roman numerals with “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776), the date of the US Declaration of Independence. A broken chain lies at her feet.
The statue became an icon of freedom and of the United States.
3. The original itsy-bitsy girl, 1946
Necessity is the mother of all invention, and this is perfectly true about the development of the modern-day bikini. With fabric shortage still in place and in the pursuit of resurrecting swimwear sales, French designer Louis Réard created a 2-piece swimsuit design in 1946, which he called the bikini. The bikini, with a total area of 30 square inches of cloth, was advertised as “smaller than the smallest swimsuit.”
Unable to find a model willing to showcase his revealing design, Réard hired Micheline Bernardini, a 19-year-old nude dancer from the Casino de Paris. Photographs of Bernardini and articles about the event were widely carried by the press.
4. The first selfie, 1839
Although selfies gained popularity when camera-equipped smartphones became commonplace, the practice is as old as the photographic camera itself. This photograph of Robert Cornelius, an American pioneer of photography, is the first self-portrait, or selfie, and was taken in the year 1839.
The term was first coined by photographer Jim Krause in 2005. The word became so popular that it was included as a new word in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2013.
5. Montparnasse derailment, 1895
Gare Montparnasse became famous for the derailment of the Granville—Paris Express on October 22, 1895. The engine careered across almost 30 m of the station concourse, crashed through a 60-cm-thick wall, shot across a terrace, smashed out of the station, and plummeted onto Place de Rennes 10 m below, where it stood on its nose. The driver was fined 50 francs for approaching the station too quickly, and one of the guards was fined 25 francs as he had been preoccupied with paperwork and failed to apply the handbrake.
The Lévy and Sons photograph of the event has become one of the most famous in the history of transportation.
6. First flight of the Wright Flyer, 1908
The Wright Flyer, named after its designers, was the first airplane to fly. Although its first flying time was just 12 seconds, it marked the beginning of the pioneer era of aviation, flying 4 times on December 17, 1903.
This photograph by John T. Daniels was first published in 1908.
7. Last photo taken of RMS Titanic, 1912
This is the last known photograph of RMS Titanic before it sank during its maiden voyage, having collided with an iceberg on the fateful day of April 15, 1912. This photograph is believed to have been taken on April 12, 1912, by Francis Browne, an Irish Jesuit priest. He sailed with the ship for the first leg of its journey but had to cut short his journey when he received a note from his clerical superior that ordered him to return to his station immediately.
8. Pyramid made from captured German helmets, 1918
This photograph, taken in 1918 (though some believe it to be in 1919), shows employees of the New York Central Railroad at a celebration in Victory Way, showing off a pyramid made from recovered German helmets in front of Grand Central Terminal. There were over 12,000 German “Pickelhaubes” in the pyramid, sent from warehouses in Germany at the end of the war.
People today might find the photograph appalling since every helmet represents a dead or captured soldier. But back in those days, with memories from the war-torn days still ripe, this monument might have evoked emotions that we can hardly fathom today.
9. Testing a bulletproof vest, 1923
In 1923, the Protective Garment Corporation in New York produced a lightweight bulletproof vest for use by the police forces. To prove its effectiveness, they decided to hold a live demonstration. The demonstration took place at the Washington City police headquarters, and the subjects were W.H. Murphy and his assistant. Shots were fired at Murphy from a distance of 10 ft. He took 2 shots straight to the chest. According to an eyewitness, he “didn’t bat an eye.” After the testing, Murphy gave the deflected bullets to a police officer as a souvenir.
10. Recording the MGM lion’s roar, 1928
Jackie was the second lion used for the MGM logo. He was the first MGM lion to roar, which was first heard via a gramophone record for MGM’s first production with sound. Jackie roared 3 times before looking off to the right of the screen. The lion appeared on all black-and-white MGM movies from 1928 to 1956.
Jackie is also known for surviving several accidents, including 2 train wrecks, an earthquake, and an explosion in the studio. In the most famous case, a pilot had to crash-land his plane, leaving Jackie stranded in the Arizona wilderness for 4 days with some water and sandwiches, earning him the moniker “Leo the Lucky.”
11. Celebrating the end of prohibition, 1933
Passed by US Congress in 1917 and ratified in 1919, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution prohibited the manufacture or sale of alcohol within the United States. Originally conceived to prevent crime and drunkenness, it soon became apparent that prohibition did just the opposite as speakeasies became widespread and bootlegging led to the establishment of organized crime.
Repealing the 18th Amendment had been a central policy of President Roosevelt’s campaign, which suggested reintroducing alcohol as a way to raise taxes during a time of economic hardship. After the 18th Amendment was repealed in 1933, Yuengling sent a truckload of “Winner Beer” to President Roosevelt as a token of appreciation. It arrived the day the amendment was repealed — particularly interesting because Yuengling beer takes almost 3 weeks to brew and age.
12. Lone man’s refusal, 1936
This photograph was taken at the launch of a German army vessel in 1936 with Adolf Hitler in attendance, and it shows a lone man standing with his arms crossed as hundreds of men and women around him stand saluting and displaying their allegiance to the Nazi Party and its leader. What makes this photo and the man’s defiance unique is that it represents the protest of one man in its most sincere and pure form.
13. Hindenburg disaster, 1937
On May 6, 1937, the Hindenburg, a massive German passenger airship, caught fire while attempting to land near Lakehurst, New Jersey, killing 35 people aboard and one ground crew member. Of the 97 passengers and crew members, 62 managed to survive. The horrifying incident was captured by reporters and photographers and was replayed on radio broadcasts, in newsprint, and on newsreels. Millions of people around the world saw the dramatic explosion that consumed the ship and its passengers. News of the disaster led to a public loss of confidence in airship travel, ending an era.
14. Anne Frank, 1940
This photograph from 1940 shows Anne Frank, aged 6, at Montessorischool in Amsterdam.
In 1999, Time named Anne Frank among the heroes and icons of the 20th century on their list “The Most Important People of the Century.” They said, “With a diary kept in a secret attic, she braved the Nazis and lent a searing voice to the fight for human dignity.”
15. Winston Churchill, 1941
Photographer Yousuf Karsh’s 1941 photo of Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, brought him instant recognition. The photograph was particularly noted for Churchill’s posture and facial expression, which have been compared to the wartime feelings that prevailed in the UK: persistence in the face of an all-conquering enemy. But according to Karsh, the grim expression on Churchill’s face is due to the fact that Karsh had, without permission, plucked the cigar he was puffing from his mouth. Although this photo would go on to become world famous, Karsh’s personal favorite portrait from the shoot is one captured later on (above), which shows Churchill with a lighter mood and a smile on his face.
16. A Frenchman gives Winston Churchill a light, 1944
A Frenchman lights the cigar of Winston Churchill following the defeat of the German army. Churchill arrived in Cherbourg on June 10, 1944, a few days before the Allied forces landed on Normandy beaches as reinforcements during D-Day.
17. V-J Day in Times Square, 1945
If you guessed that this is the iconic V-J Day in Times Square photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt, you are wrong. This photograph showing the same scene was taken by US Navy photojournalist Victor Jorgensen and is titled Kissing the War Goodbye. It was published the following day by the New York Times.
18. Baker test of Operation Crossroads, 1946
Operation Crossroads was a pair of nuclear weapon tests (named Able and Baker) conducted by the United States at Bikini Atoll in 1946. They were the first detonations of nuclear devices since the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The tests were performed to determine the effect nuclear weapons had on warships.
The photograph shows the Baker test. The wider exterior cloud in the photograph is a condensation cloud formed for a very brief period of time and is caused by the Wilson Chamber Effect. Although there was no mushroom-like cloud rising to the sky, the top of the water geyser formed a mushroom-like head known as the cauliflower, which fell back into the lagoon. The water released by the explosion was highly radioactive and contaminated many of the ships that were stationed nearby.
19. The story behind Gandhi and the Spinning Wheel, 1946
By the time photographer Margaret Bourke-White came to Gandhi’s compound for an article on India’s leaders, spinning was so bound up with Gandhi’s identity that his secretary, Pyarelal Nayyar, told Bourke-White that she had to learn the craft before photographing the leader. It was a rare photo op, and Bourke-White was not going to lose it. In this photograph, we see Bourke-White practicing the craft.
The photograph Margaret Bourke-White took never appeared in the article it was intended for. But less than 2 years later, Life featured the photo prominently in a tribute published after Gandhi’s assassination. It went on to be regarded as an iconic photograph.
20. Presley being sworn into the US Army, 1958
Elvis Presley is often regarded as one of the most significant cultural icons of the 20th century.
He served in the United States Army from 1958 to 1960. At the time of his draft, he was already a well-known name in the world of entertainment. Before entering the US Army, Presley had caused national outrage with his sexually charged performances and rock and roll music. Many parents, religious leaders, and teachers saw his draft, which removed him from public view, as a positive thing. Although he was offered many options by the government and the armed forces to use his popularity, Presley decided to join as a regular soldier. Upon completion of his service, Presley was awarded the Army Good Conduct Medal. He also qualified as an expert marksman with several weapons. His stint with the armed forces found him a new fan base, and the rest, as they say, is history.
21. Building the Berlin Wall, 1961
The imagery from photographs showing euphoric people from both sides of the wall climbing onto it and tearing it apart is etched into our memories. This photograph shows the other side of this time line, when the Berlin Wall’s construction was underway.
22. North American blizzard of 1966
One of the most severe blizzards on record to impact the US and Canada occurred in 1966. The blizzard was particularly memorable for its long duration, heavy snowfall, and wind gusts exceeding 70 mph at times. By the time the storm eased, it had claimed over 200 lives.
The iconic photo of North Dakota DOT employee Bill Koch standing next to a set of power lines was taken by his colleague Ernest Feland.
23. The Ultimate Confrontation: The Flower and the Bayonet, 1967
Over the years, this photograph captured by French photographer Marc Riboud in 1967 has formed a formidable reputation as a symbol of passive resistance and nonviolent ideology.
24. 1968 Olympics Black Power salute
This was a political demonstration conducted by African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos during their medal ceremony at the 1968 Summer Olympics in the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City. After winning the gold and bronze medals, respectively, in the 200-meter running event, they ascended the medal stand determined to shatter the illusion that all was right in the world. Just before “The Star-Spangled Banner” began to play, Smith and Carlos bowed their heads and raised black-gloved fists in the air. Their message was clear: before we salute America, America must treat blacks as equal. The athletes kept their fists raised until the anthem had finished.
25. Women protesting forced hijabs in Iran, 1979
On March 8, 1979 — International Women’s Day — more than 100,000 women gathered on the streets of Tehran, the Iranian capital, to protest against the new Islamic government’s compulsory hijab ruling, which meant that women would be required to wear a headscarf when away from home. The photographer Hengāmeh Golestān commented, “The spontaneous uprising of both women and men on March 8, 1979, was an effort to protect the achievements of women’s rights in the 70 years of Iranian history.”
26. A woman in Italy is issued a ticket for wearing a bikini, 1957
The bikini was banned from beaches and public places on the French Atlantic coastline, Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Australia and was prohibited or discouraged in a number of US states. The Vatican declared it sinful.
During the 1950s, many Hollywood stars took advantage of the risqué publicity associated with the bikini by posing for photographs wearing one. This led to an upsurge in the popularity of the bikini. By the end of the century, it had become the most popular beachwear around the globe. According to the French fashion historian Olivier Saillard, “The emancipation of swimwear has always been linked to the emancipation of women.” However, one survey indicates that 85% of all bikinis sold never touch the water.