Legendary Photographs that Changed the World
Dead on the Beach 1943
When LIFE ran this stark, haunting photograph of a beach in Papua New Guinea on September 20, 1943, the magazine felt compelled to ask in an adjacent full-page editorial, “Why print this picture, anyway, of three American boys dead upon an alien shore?” Among the reasons: “words are never enough . . . words do not exist to make us see, or know, or feel what it is like, what actually happens.” But there was more to it than that; LIFE was actually publishing in concert with government wishes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt was convinced that Americans had grown too complacent about the war, so he lifted the ban on images depicting U.S. casualties. Strock’s picture and others that followed in LIFE and elsewhere had the desired effect. The public, shocked by combat’s grim realities, was instilled with yet greater resolve to win the war.
When the Igbos of eastern Nigeria declared themselves independent in 1967, Nigeria blockaded their fledgling country-Biafra. In three years of war, more than one million people died, mainly of hunger. In famine, children who lack protein often get the disease kwashiorkor, which causes their muscles to waste away and their bellies to protrude. War photographer Don McCullin drew attention to the tragedy. “I was devastated by the sight of 900 children living in one camp in utter squalor at the point of death,” he said. “I lost all interest in photographing soldiers in action.” The world community intervened to help Biafra, and learned key lessons about dealing with massive hunger exacerbated by war-a problem that still defies simple solutions
For years, Birmingham, Ala., was considered “the South’s toughest city,” home to a large black population and a dominant class of whites that met in frequent, open hostility. Birmingham in 1963 had become the cause célèbre of the black civil rights movement as nonviolent demonstrators led by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. repeatedly faced jail, dogs and high-velocity hoses in their tireless quest to topple segregation. This picture of people being pummeled by a liquid battering ram rallied support for the plight of the blacks.
Nothing like the mushroom cloud had ever been seen, not by the general public. It was a suitably awesome image for the power unleashed below. On August 6 the first atomic bomb killed an estimated 80,000 people in the Japanese city of Hiroshima. There was no quick surrender, and three days later a second bomb exploded 500 meters above the ground in Nagasaki. The blast wind, heat rays reaching several thousand degrees and radiation destroyed anything even remotely nearby, killing or injuring as many as 150,000 at the time, and more later. As opposed to the very personal images of war that had brought the pain home, the ones from Japan that were most shocking were those from a longer perspective, showing the enormity of what had occurred
What Charles Dickens did with words for the underage toilers of London, Lewis Hine did with photographs for the youthful laborers in the United States. In 1908 the National Child Labor Committee was already campaigning to put the nation’s two million young workers back in school when the group hired Hine. The Wisconsin native traveled to half the states, capturing images of children working in mines, mills and on the streets. Here he has photographed “breaker boys,” whose job was to separate coal from slate, in South Pittston, Pa. Once again, pictures swayed the public in a way cold statistics had not, and the country enacted laws banning child labor.
South of the DMZ 1966
Contrary to the constraints that were put upon the press in subsequent conflicts, and even to the embedded program used in the recent Iraqi war, correspondents and photographers in Vietnam could, as Walter Cronkite wrote in LIFE, “accompany troops to wherever they could hitch a ride, and there was no censorship . . . That system—or lack of one—kept the American public well informed of our soldiers’ problems, their setbacks and their heroism.” Reaching Out is a quintessential example of the powerful imagery that came out of Vietnam. “The color photographs of tormented Vietnamese villagers and wounded American conscripts that Larry Burrows took and LIFE published, starting in 1962, certainly fortified the outcry against the American presence in Vietnam,” Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “Looking at War,” in the December 9, 2002, New Yorker. “Burrows was the first important photographer to do a whole war in color—another gain in verisimilitude and shock.” Burrows was killed when the helicopter he was riding in was shot down over Laos in 1971.
The Crimean War 1855
A British solicitor with an artistic bent, Roger Fenton took up the paintbrush and then, after seeing photography on display at the Great Exhibition in Hyde Park in 1851, the camera. Fenton shot landscapes and portraits, and pictures of Queen Victoria’s children at Windsor Castle in 1854. The next year, he was assigned by a print dealer to cover the Crimean War, being waged by England and France against Russia. Thus the war became the first conflict with any substantial photographic record. Battling cholera and broken ribs, lugging his developing lab on a horse-drawn carriage, Fenton produced 350 images. They are stately and sedate for war photography, since neither the queen nor Fenton’s sponsors wanted to see carnage or any evidence of a war that was progressing badly.
Cuban Missile Crisis 1962
On October 22, 1962, after accusing the U.S.S.R. of installing nuclear missiles on Cuba, President John F. Kennedy ordered a blockade of the island. When the Soviet ambassador to the U.N. refused to deny the charge, U.S. ambassador Adlai Stevenson confronted him with these photos of missile sites taken by the high-flying spy plane, the U-2, and the Soviets were compelled to back down. The presentation of seemingly incontrovertible evidence would become known as an “Adlai Stevenson moment.” Robert F. Kennedy later admitted that he and his brother found the grainy images quite baffling, and banked on the interpretation proffered by the CIA: “I, for one, had to take their word for it.”
Cuban Missile Crisis 1962
This photograph. taken on November 10, 1962 (from less than 500 ft. altitude at a speed of 713 mph). Clearly shown are Soviet-built SA-2 surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) in place at launch sites. It is claimed that this was President Kennedy’s favorite photo of the installations, and was mounted in the oval office. He used this photo to demonstrate the nature of the threat that the offensive weapons provided. The pattern of dots surrounding the sites are claimed to be camouflage nets..
Michael Dukakis, 1988 – Another Landmark Image
After Gary Hart was photographed with a model (no, not his wife) in 1988 on a boat dubbed Monkey Business, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis became the Democrat’s choice to run for President against George Bush. At a General Dynamics plant in Michigan, the Duke wanted to show he was no softie on defense, so took a spin in a tank. Compared with the dashing WWII pilot Bush, the little Dukakis came off a clown, and the photo op blew up in his face
The late adventure photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.” Captured on Christmas Eve, 1968, near the end of one of the most tumultuous years the U.S. had ever known, the Earthrise photograph inspired contemplation of our fragile existence and our place in the cosmos. For years, Frank Borman and Bill Anders of the Apollo 8 mission each thought that he was the one who took the picture. An investigation of two rolls of film seemed to prove Borman had taken an earlier, black-and-white frame, and the iconic color photograph, which later graced a U.S. postage stamp and several book covers, was by Anders.
Execution of a Viet Cong Guerrilla 1968
With North Vietnam’s Tet Offensive beginning, Nguyen Ngoc Loan, South Vietnam’s national police chief, was doing all he could to keep Viet Cong guerrillas from Saigon. As Loan executed a prisoner who was said to be a Viet Cong captain, AP photographer Eddie Adams opened the shutter. Adams won a Pulitzer Prize for a picture that, as much as any, turned public opinion against the war. Adams felt that many misinterpreted the scene, and when told in 1998 that the immigrant Loan had died of cancer at his home in Burke, Va., he said, “The guy was a hero. America should be crying. I just hate to see him go this way, without people knowing anything about him.
Betty Grable 1942
World War II took American boys to far-flung places and some rough duty. For many, mail came infrequently at best, and at times it held only a Dear John letter. The troops were desperate for some link to home, some reminder of what they were fighting for. Betty Grable and her million-dollar legs were the perfect balm for what ailed ’em, and this 1942 pinup of the easygoing girl with oodles of back-home charm, and other assets, made the war seem a little more bearable. Sexy pinups later grew to poster size, perhaps most memorably in the endlessly reproduced portrait of Farrah Fawcett.
Johnson Is Sworn In 1963
Lyndon Baines Johnson takes the presidential oath of office on November 22 as Air Force One carries his wife, Lady Bird, Jacqueline Kennedy and several White House aides back to Washington from Dallas. Earlier, President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated, and the speed with which this ceremony was arranged—and the photo released—was purposeful. Johnson and his advisers wanted to assure a shocked nation that the government was stable, the situation under control. Images from the Zapruder film of the shooting, which would raise so many questions, would not be made public for day
Kent State 1970
When President Richard Nixon said he was sending troops to Cambodia, the nation’s colleges erupted in protest. At Kent State some threw rocks. The Ohio National Guard, called in to quell the turmoil, suddenly turned and fired, killing four; two were simply walking to class. This photo captured a pivotal moment: American soldiers had just killed American kids. Student photographer John Filo won the Pulitzer; the event was also memorialized in a Neil Young song and a TV movie. The girl, Mary Ann Vecchio, turned out not to be a Kent State student, but a 14-year-old runaway. She was sent back to her family in Florida
Hazel Bryant – Another Landmark Image
It was the fourth school year since segregation had been outlawed by the Supreme Court. Things were not going well, and some southerners accused the national press of distorting matters. This picture, however, gave irrefutable testimony, as Elizabeth Eckford strides through a gantlet of white students, including Hazel Bryant (mouth open the widest), on her way to Little Rock’s Central High
Clarence Hailey Long, 1949 – Another Landmark Image
This is C.H. Long, a 39-year-old foreman at the JA ranch in the Texas panhandle, a place described as “320,000 acres of nothing much.” Once a week, Long would ride into town for a store-bought shave and a milk shake. Maybe he’d take in a movie if a western was playing. He said things like, “If it weren’t for a good horse, a woman would be the sweetest thing in the world.” He rolled his own smokes. When the cowboy’s face and story appeared in LIFE in 1949, advertising exec Leo Burnett had an inspiration. The company Philip Morris, which had introduced Marlboro as a woman’s cigarette in 1924, was seeking a new image for the brand, and the Marlboro Man based on Long boosted Marlboro to the top of the worldwide cigarette market
A mob of 10,000 whites took sledgehammers to the county jailhouse doors to get at these two young blacks accused of raping a white girl; the girl’s uncle saved the life of a third by proclaiming the man’s innocence. Although this was Marion, Ind., most of the nearly 5,000 lynchings documented between Reconstruction and the late 1960s were perpetrated in the South. (Hangings, beatings and mutilations were called the sentence of “Judge Lynch.”) Some lynching photos were made into postcards designed to boost white supremacy, but the tortured bodies and grotesquely happy crowds ended up revolting as many as they scared. Today the images remind us that we have not come as far from barbarity as we’d like to think
Migrant Mother 1936
This California farmworker, age 32, had just sold her tent and the tires off her car to buy food for her seven kids. The family was living on scavenged vegetables and wild birds. Working for the federal government, Dorothea Lange took pictures like this one to document how the Depression colluded with the Dust Bowl to ravage lives. Along with the writing of her economist husband, Paul Taylor, Lange’s work helped convince the public and the government of the need to help field hands. Lange later said that this woman, whose name she did not ask, “seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me.”
Galloping Horse 1878
Was there a moment midstride when horses had all hooves off the ground? Leland Stanford, the railroad baron and future university founder, bet there was—or at least that’s the story. It was 1872 when Stanford hired noted landscape photographer Eadweard Muybridge to figure it out. It took years, but Muybridge delivered: He rigged a racetrack with a dozen strings that triggered 12 cameras. Muybridge not only proved Stanford right but also set off the revolution in motion photography that would become movies. Biographer Rebecca Solnit summed up his life: “He is the man who split the second, as dramatic and far-reaching an action as the splitting of the atom.
Pigeon House and Barn 1827
As early as 1793, Frenchman Nicéphore Niépce and his brother Claude imagined a photographic process, and over the next several years, Nicéphore experimented with various light-sensitive substances and cameras. In 1824 he produced a view from his window on a metal plate covered with asphalt. That and most other pictures fashioned by Niépce in the 1820s no longer exist, but the fuzzy image of a pigeon house and a barn roof taken in the summer of 1827 is a good representation of Niépce’s art. To make what he called a “heliograph,” or sun drawing, Niépce employed an exposure time of more than eight hours. Photography, if not yet practical, had been invented
How Life Begins 1965
In 1957 he began taking pictures with an endoscope, an instrument that can see inside a body cavity, but when Lennart Nilsson presented the rewards of his work to LIFE’s editors several years later, they demanded that witnesses confirm that they were seeing what they thought they were seeing. Finally convinced, they published a cover story in 1965 that went on for 16 pages, and it created a sensation. Then, and over the intervening years, Nilsson’s painstakingly made pictures informed how humanity feels about . . . well, humanity. They also were appropriated for purposes that Nilsson never intended. Nearly as soon as the 1965 portfolio appeared in LIFE, images from it were enlarged by right-to-life activists and pasted to placards.
Promontory Point 1869
The ceremony begins on May 10, 1869, as an eastbound Central Pacific locomotive and a westbound Union Pacific locomotive meet in Promontory Point, Utah, marking the completion of the first transcontinental railroad. The men on the cowcatchers are ready to toast the driving of the golden spike. The work had been brutal. At one stage, efforts to tunnel through the marble spine of a Sierra Nevada mountain consumed an entire year, as only eight inches a day of progress was possible. So: a fabulous accomplishment. But this is also an early example of a photo op—the use of a picture as a means to an end. Folks back East could see, plain as day, that a train could take them all the way to California, where businessmen anxiously awaited their commerce
Triangle Shirtwaist Company Fire 1911
The Triangle Shirtwaist Company always kept its doors locked to ensure that the young immigrant women stayed stooped over their machines and didn’t steal anything. When a fire broke out on Saturday, March 25, 1911, on the eighth floor of the New York City factory, the locks sealed the workers’ fate. In just 30 minutes, 146 were killed. Witnesses thought the owners were tossing their best fabric out the windows to save it, then realized workers were jumping, sometimes after sharing a kiss (the scene can be viewed now as an eerie precursor to the World Trade Center events of September, 11, 2001, only a mile and a half south). The Triangle disaster spurred a national crusade for workplace safety.
Tiananmen Square 1989
A hunger strike by 3,000 students in Beijing had grown to a protest of more than a million as the injustices of a nation cried for reform. For seven weeks the people and the People’s Republic, in the person of soldiers dispatched by a riven Communist Party, warily eyed each other as the world waited. When this young man simply would not move, standing with his meager bags before a line of tanks, a hero was born. A second hero emerged as the tank driver refused to crush the man, and instead drove his killing machine around him. Soon this dream would end, and blood would fill Tiananmen. But this picture had shown a billion Chinese that there is hope
On December 17, 1903, two bicycle mechanics from Ohio realized one of humanity’s wildest dreams: For 12 seconds they were possessed of true flight. Before the day ended, Orville and Wilbur Wright would keep their wood-wire-and-cloth Flyer aloft for 59 seconds. Sober citizens knew that only birds used wings to take to the air, so without being at the site, near Kitty Hawk, N.C., or seeing this photo, few would have believed the Wrights’ story. Although it had taken ages for humans to fly, once the brothers made their breakthrough, the learning curve reached the heavens. Within 15 years of this critical moment, nearly all the elements of the modern airplane had been imagined, if not yet developed
First Human X-ray 1896
To know something like the back of your hand is a timeless concept, one taken yet further by Wilhelm Konrad Roentgen. While working on a series of experiments with a Crookes tube, he noticed that a bit of barium platinocyanide emitted a fluorescent glow. He then laid a photographic plate behind his wife’s hand (note the wedding rings), and made the first X-ray photo. Before that, physicians were unable to look inside a person’s body without making an incision. Roentgen was the recipient of the first Nobel Prize for Physics in 1901.
Anne Frank 1941
Six million Jews died in the Holocaust. For many throughout the world, one teenage girl gave them a story and a face. She was Anne Frank, the adolescent who, according to her diary, retained her hope and humanity as she hid with her family in an Amsterdam attic. In 1944 the Nazis, acting on a tip, arrested the Franks; Anne and her sister died of typhus at Bergen-Belsen only a month before the camp was liberated. The world came to know her through her words and through this ordinary portrait of a girl of 14. She stares with big eyes, wearing an enigmatic expression, gazing at a future that the viewer knows will never come.
Searching for the North Pole
Photograph by Admiral Robert E. Peary
Robert E. Peary documented his 1909 trip to the North Pole with a No. 4 Folding Pocket Kodak. Though the camera was lost, images taken with it were used by the National Geographic Society in 1989 to determine that Peary’s claim of reaching the Pole, the subject of controversy since the day he made it, was valid. In this photo, Peary scouts the Arctic terrain using a telescope
First Archaeology Photos
Photograph by Hiram Bingham
Hiram Bingham, a meticulous record keeper, had a Kodak 3A Autographic Special camera among his gear when he discovered the lost Inca city of Machu Picchu in 1911. Among the first views he captured was this stunning panorama of the ruins, with their ancient terraces and stonework buildings of white granite. The mountain Hyana Picchu towers over it all.
Tomb of Tutankhamun, 1922
Photograph by Maynard Owen Williams
Dignitaries ring the entrance to King Tutankhamun’s tomb during a visit in 1922 by the Egyptian sultana. The opening of the boy-king’s tomb on November 26, 1922, brought archaeologists, cameramen, treasure hunters, and reporters from all over the world. There was “drama in the very air of the place,” wrote National Geographic correspondent Maynard O. Williams.
Pearl Harbor Attack, 1941
Photograph courtesy the National Archives/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images
The Roosevelt Administration was happy to give the U.S. press access to the images of Japanese infamy at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. For months, Roosevelt had been seeking to sway American opinion into supporting the war. Images like this one of the sinking U.S.S. West Virginia and Tennessee quickly put an end to the policy of American isolationism.
Atomic Bomb Attack, 1945
Photograph by Alfred Eisenstaedt
This photograph of a Japanese mother and child in the wreckage of Hiroshima was taken four months after the atomic bomb landed on the city in August of 1945. The bomb, dubbed “Little Boy,” released an explosion equivalent to 15,000 tons of TNT on Hiroshima. The tail gunner of the B-29 that dropped the bomb described the devastation as “like bubbling molasses down there … the mushroom is spreading out … it’s like a peep into hell.”
John F. Kennedy Funeral, 1963
Photograph by David S. Boyer
Photojournalist David S. Boyer’s famous November 25, 1963, photo of the Kennedy family standing on the steps of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Washington, D.C., following the Requiem Mass for President Kennedy is one of the most poignant images of the 20th century. The picture of three-year-old John F. Kennedy, Jr., saluting his father’s coffin tugged at a grieving nation’s heartstrings.
The Beatles, 1967
Photograph by John Downing
The Beatles released the enormously influential Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album on June 1, 1967. The first ever “concept album,” it garnered four Grammy Awards and went on to become one of the most innovative and successful recordings in music history.
Nelson Mandela’s Release, 1990
Photograph by Alexander Joe
Seventy-one-year-old Nelson Mandela, with wife Winnie, greets the world outside South Africa’s Victor Verster prison on February 11, 1990, after nearly 26 years as a political prisoner. “Within 20 feet [6 meters] or so of the gate,” Mandela later wrote, “the cameras started clicking, a noise that sounded like some great herd of metallic beasts.”
9/11 Ground Zero, 2001
Photograph by Thomas E. Franklin
Firefighters at the fallen World Trade Center raise an American flag at ground zero on September 11, 2001. Nearly instantaneous television and Internet coverage meant the horrors of 9/11 were witnessed by a large portion of the world’s population. For the first time ever, ordinary people had ringside seats as history unfolded.
Saddam Statues, 2005
Photograph by Mauricio Lima
Two U.S. soldiers pose in front of giant stone statues of deposed Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in Baghdad in November 2005. The war in Iraq has been the first in history to be played out in its entirety in front of film cameras, from countdown to invasion, from rapid conquest to the grueling misery of occupation.
Hurricane Katrina, 2005
Photograph by David J. Phillip
In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans’ St. Bernard Parish await rescue on a roof spray-painted with messages to loved ones. Wrote history professor Douglas Brinkley: “I had felt immune to the disaster. … Then this simple image of the forlorn roof, not at all graphic, cut like a knife. For painted in white on the rooftop was the simple saying: ‘Love You Kids.'”