Many of history’s most iconic photos have fascinating backstories. Discover the secrets behind 10 famous photographs.
(Post featured image by Balázs Benjamin, @Pexels)
Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima
This Pulitzer Prize winning photo by Joe Rosenthal shows six U.S. Marines raising an American flag atop Mount Suribachi during the Battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. It became one of the most reproduced images of the war, symbolizing victory and American patriotism.
However, the photo was actually a re-enactment staged after the flag was already raised earlier that day. Rosenthal had missed the initial event and persuaded the Marines to do it again so he could capture it on film. The identities of the men in the photo were also misrepresented for almost two years.
V-J Day in Times Square
Alfred Eisenstaedt’s joyous V-J Day photo shows a U.S. Navy sailor kissing a woman in a white dress in Times Square on August 14, 1945 as people celebrated Japan’s surrender.
The identities of the kissing couple were unknown for decades. In the 1980s, multiple men and women claimed to be the subjects. It was finally confirmed that the kisser was George Mendonsa and the kissed was Greta Zimmer Friedman, a dental assistant he had never met.
Mendonsa simply grabbed and kissed Friedman spontaneously amid the excitement. But some have criticized the picture as portraying sexual assault rather than romance.
Dorothea Lange’s iconic photo Migrant Mother depicts Florence Owens Thompson with two of her children at a California migrant farm camp in 1936. It became a symbol of the hardship faced by migrant families during the Great Depression.
However, Thompson felt exploited by the photo. She didn’t earn any money from it despite it making Lange famous. Thompson also claimed she was not actually a migrant worker as depicted, but had traveled to the camp to be with her husband.
Steve McCurry’s piercing green-eyed portrait, Afghan Girl, appeared on the June 1985 cover of National Geographic. It became an iconic symbol of the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.
However, the young girl’s identity was unknown for 17 years until McCurry returned to Afghanistan in 2002. After an extensive search, the girl was located and identified as Sharbat Gula. As an adult, she had never seen her famous photo.
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper
Charles C. Ebbets’ iconic 1932 photo depicts 11 construction workers sitting for lunch on a steel beam atop Rockefeller Center in New York City. It captures their daredevil attitude 850 feet above the ground.
In reality, the shot was a promotional stunt by the steel company to show that their bolts were strong. The beam was actually wider and more stable than it appeared. The men were also attached to wires cropped out of the shot.
Jeff Widener’s photo from the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests depicts an unknown man holding shopping bags standing defiantly in front of a line of Chinese tanks. It became a symbol of resistance against authoritarianism.
The man’s identity remains unknown, though several people later claimed to be the ‘Tank Man’. Widener only managed to capture the scene from a sixth floor balcony after sneaking rolls of film past Chinese authorities. The image almost didn’t make it out of Beijing.
The Falling Man
Richard Drew’s controversial photo depicts a man falling headfirst from the North Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. Published in many newspapers, the mysterious Falling Man provoked intense debate about depicting sensitive events.
The man’s identity remains unconfirmed, but he is believed to have been an employee at the Windows on the World restaurant. The photo captured his tragic decision to escape the flames by jumping from the building.
Malcolm Browne’s 1963 award winning photo shows Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc burning himself to death in protest against the persecution of Buddhists under President Ngo Dinh Diem. It shocked the world and led to Diem’s downfall.
The protest was coordinated with other monks to ensure Browne got the shot. Duc sat calmly while he burned, even as others tried to put out the flames. The image captured the extraordinary sacrifice made to protest oppression.
The Hindenburg Disaster
Sam Shere’s 1937 photo captured the moment the Hindenburg airship ignited into a fiery blaze while attempting to dock in New Jersey, killing 36 passengers and crew. The iconic image marked the end of the airship era.
The timing of the photo was a matter of pure luck. Shere was supposed to photograph the airship’s arrival but didn’t have his camera ready. He then captured its shocking demise while reloading his camera.
Behind every iconic photo lies an untold story. While the images themselves have power, understanding their full context and backstories gives them even richer meaning. The drama behind these famous photographs reminds us that even the most iconic moments in history were fleeting split-second occurrences.