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7 Iconic Photographs and the Stories Behind Them

Photography can capture an entire historical period in just a fraction of a second.

Some iconic photographs transcend time and place and become part of a collective history and knowledge. In this article, I’ll tell you about seven iconic images you probably recognize but perhaps don’t know the stories behind.

Let’s drive down memory lane with these iconic photographs.

7 Iconic Photographs and the Stories Behind Them

In almost 200 years of photographic history, many pictures have become iconic.

It was somewhat difficult to choose these seven, but I believe they are important not only because of what they represent but also because of the discussion they spark about photography itself.

I hope you enjoy the ride.

1. Boulevard du Temple – Louis Daguerre (1838)

Credit: Boulevard du Temple, Paris, Louis Daguerre, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This seemingly uninteresting image has changed our lives forever. Even if there’s a surviving image from ten years before that’s considered the first photograph, it took about eight hours to expose.

The daguerreotype took only 4-15 minutes. This revolutionized photography, as it could now capture humans and living subjects. In fact, you can see a person in this picture.

Black and white photo of a park with silhouettes of two figures; one appears to be striking the other. Trees and paved pathways are visible.

Cropped detail from Boulevard du Temple showing a man getting his shoes polished.

What you see here is the view from Daguerre’s window. It’s believed it was a busy street with people and horse traffic as it was taken at 8 AM. However, the only person visible in the picture is the one who stood still long enough to be registered – the one having his shoes shined.

This photograph was taken in 1837 or 1838, and Daguerre publicly announced his invention in 1839. A few months later, his studio burned, and most of his daguerrotypes were lost.

This is one of the surviving images. It was originally mounted in a triptych and displayed in the Munich Arts Association.

However, Beaumont Newhall made it iconic, making reproductions to display in New York in 1937 and including them in his book History of Photography.

2 Self-Portrait as Drowned Man – Hippolyte Bayard (1840)

A black-and-white photograph depicts a shirtless person sitting with a stovepipe hat alongside a large, round object, possibly a straw hat, on the left. The image has a grainy texture.

Hippolyte Bayard, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This is one of the most iconic images in photographic history.

Paradoxically, it proves that a photograph isn’t, in fact, proof. This is considered the first staged photograph in history – I would dare call it the first conceptual photograph, too.

He didn’t intend to discuss the inherent truthfulness or falseness of photography, although this topic comes up often in his career.

Instead, it was a conceptual self-portrait using photography as a metaphor.

He portrays himself as a dead man in reaction to an injustice. You see, Bayard could’ve been known as the inventor of photography.

However, a friend of Daguerre convinced him to postpone the presentation of his method to the French Academy of Science. As a result, Daguerre beat him to the punch and got the credit as the pioneer.

In the back of the portrait, he wrote a short eulogy explaining who he is and that he drowned himself in despair because the French Government was so generous to Daguerre but couldn’t do anything to help him. You can read the entire text here.

3. The Horse in Motion – Eadweard Muybridge – 1877/78

A sequence of 12 black-and-white frames of a horse and rider in motion, capturing the different stages of the horse's gallop. Title: "The Horse in Motion" by Eadweard Muybridge, 1878.

Credit: Eadweard Muybridge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In The Horse in Motion, the idea was to use photography to prove a scientific fact. By the 1870s, horses were typically painted in the ‘flying gallop’ pose.

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Leland Stanford, former Governor of California, bred, trained, and raced horses. He was interested in learning more about horses’ gaits to improve their performance.

After many failed attempts, he turned to photography and hired Eadweard Muybridge, who was known for his innovative thinking.

Muybridge did his first experiment in 1873. He developed a trigger-activated shutter system so that the horse would release it as it walked by. The reported settings were 1/500 of a second and 1/8 of an inch aperture.

The results were unsatisfactory – so they were never published. Years later, in 1877, he made a second experiment with the same horse and captured it at full speed. This single image was sent to the newspapers, but it turned out to be a painting based on Muybridge’s negative.

Lastly, he used twelve cameras to capture the entire stride of the horse. He had specially ordered lenses and electrical shutters to build his photographic system.

He then painted the background white and painted horizontal and vertical distances. The cameras were triggered by wires that ran on the surface as the horse would pass.

In the end, the photographs showed the movements of a running horse for the first time, which is impossible to see with the naked eye.

Using these photographs, Stanford proved that while there is a moment when the horse does have all four legs in the air, it’s not when they are extended – like in the flying gallop pose. Instead, it’s when they’re folded under the body.

4. Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange 1936

Black and white photo of a woman with a worried expression, holding her hand to her chin, flanked by two children who have their heads turned away, inside a tent or makeshift shelter.

Migrant mother, Nipomo, California, Dorothea Lange, Part of Franklin D. Roosevelt Library Public Domain Photographs, via Wikimedia

Not only is this an iconic image from photographic history, but it’s also THE image that represents the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange worked for the Resettlement Administration (FSA) – an agency created to help impoverished farmers.

Lange stopped at a pea-pickers camp where she found the farmers out of work because the freezing rains had ruined the crop. This is where she took the picture.

The woman portrayed in it is Florence Owens Thompson, with three of her seven children. Thanks to Lange’s photograph, she became the symbol of the struggles faced by immigrants during that period.

Lange didn’t just stumble upon this scene. This woman’s expression and circumstances captured her attention and she came up to her. Lange took several photos and directed the subjects on where to stand and a few other interactions.

While the photograph was somewhat posed, it does capture genuine emotions and the hardship of this family and others’ circumstances.

Thompson wrote a letter years later to express her discontent with her image being exploited while she never received any compensation or any help to improve her conditions.

5. Dali Atomicus – Philippe Halsman 1948 

A man leans back while water splashes and two cats are airborne in a surreal indoor scene. Objects, including a chair and easel, are scattered around the room.

Philip Halsman, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While this image may not seem unique to people used to Photoshop and generative AI, none of these technologies were available then.

This surreal photograph perfectly captures the essence of Salvador Dali and his art. It also touches on the principle of suspension, which was popular during the atomic age.

The photographer who came up with the idea was Philippe Halsman – who was inspired by Dali’s “Leda Atomica.” A notable anecdote says that while the artists discussed the concept, Dali suggested blowing up a duck using dynamite.

Fortunately, Halsman convinced him not to do this and came up with the idea we see in this picture.

Halsman constructed the setting by suspending the furniture and other elements with thin wires. Then, he had his assistants throw the cats and the water while Dali jumped.

The perfect shot, taken on the 26th attempt, took them about six hours to get. Life Magazine published the photograph as one of the “100 most influential photographs ever taken.”

6. Buzz Aldrin Walks on the Moon – 1969

An astronaut wearing a spacesuit and helmet stands on the moon's surface with the lunar module and their shadow visible in the background.

Credit: Neil A. Armstrong, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In 1969, the Apollo 11 mission landed on the moon, allowing humans to walk on the lunar surface for the first time.

Neil Armstrong was the first to step foot on it, and his famous phrase, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” immortalized this.

Buzz Aldrin joined him about 20 minutes later, and Armstrong captured this in a photograph. This is the picture you are looking at – Buzz Aldrin in his space suit, with the visor of his helmet reflecting Armstrong and the lunar landscape.

The photograph was taken with a Hasselblad 500ELM shot from the hip.

This picture is one of the most famous images from the mission and one of the most iconic photographs of the 20th century. It represents the success of the space race.

Many people believe this photograph and the moon landing in general to be staged. They contest anomalies in the photos and videos and of the mission, including the quality of the photographs.

However, experts have de-bunked these theories.

7. The Terror of War – Nick Ut – 1972


While not many people know the title, most have seen the picture, which is most commonly called “Napalm Girl.”

During the Vietnam War, South Vietnamese planes dropped napalm into an occupied village and mistakenly hit civilians. Among them, there were many children – including Phan Thi Kim Phuc.

She is depicted in the photograph as she runs and screams in pain after the napalm has burned through her clothes and reached her skin. Associated Press photographer Nick Ut captured this terrifying moment.

Just after he captured the picture, he put down the camera and helped Phan Thi Kim Phuc by taking her to the hospital with other suffering children.

He later said that the hospital was sending them away, and it was only because he threatened them with publishing the photo and accused them of letting the children die that the hospital agreed to take them in and save them.

Thanks to this photograph, many people became aware of the impact war had on innocent people and helped put more pressure on stopping the war.

After Kim Phuc was released from the hospital and saw the photograph, she felt shocked and ashamed. She struggled to understand why that picture was taken and published for many years. At some point, she became suicidal.

She is now healthy and happy. From her experience, she’s become a public speaker and advocates for peace. She also founded the Kim Foundation International, which aids child victims of war.

This iconic photograph symbolizes the terror of war, reminds us how powerful photography can be, and helps us reflect on the ethics of photojournalism and the consequences it may have on the people portrayed.

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