The Photograph That Raised the Photo journalistic Stakes:
"Omaha Beach, Normandy, France"
Caught under heavy fire, Capa dove for what little cover he could find, then shot all the film in his camera, and got out - just barely. He escaped with his life, but not much else. Of the four rolls of film Capa took of the horrific D-Day battle, all but 11 exposures were ruined by an overeager lab assistant, who melted the film in his rush to develop it. (He was trying to meet the deadline for the next issue of Life magazine.)
The Photograph That Gave a Face to the Great Depression
As one of the world’s first war photographers, Mathew Brady didn’t start
In fact, Brady had everything to lose by making a career move - his money, his business, and quite possibly his life. Nevertheless, he decided to risk it all and follow the Union Army into battle with his camera, saying, "A spirit in my feet said, ‘Go!’" And go he did - at least until he got a good look at the pointy end of a Confederate bayonet.
After narrowly escaping capture at the first Battle of Bull Run, Brady’s chatty feet quieted down a bit, and he began sending assistants in his place. In the span of only a few years, Brady and his team shot more than 7,000 photographs - an astounding number when you consider that developing a single plate required a horse-drawn-wagon-full of cumbersome equipment and noxious chemicals. Not exactly what you’d call "point-and-shoot."
Tethered as he was to his equine-powered darkroom and with film speeds being much slower then, Brady produced war photos that are understandably light on the action and heavy on the aftermath. Still, they mark the first time Americans were so immediately confronted with the grim realities of the battlefield.
The Photograph That Ended a War But Ruined a Life
"Murder of a Vietcong by Saigon Police Chief"
The Photograph That Isn’t as Romantic as You Might Think
"V-J Day, Times Square, 1945", a.k.a. "The Kiss"
On August 14, 1945, the news of Japan’s surrender was announced in the United States, signaling the end of World War II. Riotous celebrations erupted in the streets, but perhaps none were more relieved than those in uniform. Although many of them had recently returned from victory in
Europe, they faced the prospect of having to ship out yet again, this time to the bloody Pacific.
Among the overjoyed masses gathered in Times Square that day was one of the most talented photojournalists of the 20th century, a German immigrant named Alfred Eisenstaedt. While snapping pictures of the celebration, he spotted a sailor "running along the street grabbing any and every girl in sight." He later explained that, "whether she was a grandmother, stout, thin, old, didn’t make any difference."
Of course, a photo of the sailor planting a wet one on a senior citizen wouldn’t have made the cover of Life, but when he locked lips with an attractive nurse, the image was circulated in newspapers across the country. Needless to say, "V-J Day" didn’t capture a highly anticipated embrace by long-lost lovers, but it also wasn’t staged, as many critics have claimed. In any case, the image remains an enduring symbol of America’s exuberance at the end of a long struggle.
The Photograph That Destroyed an Industry
Murray Becker, 1937
In the grand scheme of things, however, the Hindenburg wasn’t all that disastrous. Of the 97 people aboard, a surprising 62 survived. (in fact, it wasn’t even the worst Zeppelin crash of the 20th century. Just four years earlier, the U.S.S. Akron had crashed into the Atlantic killing more than twice as many people.) But when calculating the epic status of a catastrophe, terrifying photographs and quotable quotes ("Oh, the humanity!") far outweigh body counts.
Assembled as part of a massive PR campaign by the Hindenburg’s parent company in Germany, no fewer than 22 photographers, reporters, and newsreel cameramen were on the scene in Lakehurst, N.J. when the airship went down. Worldwide publicity of the well-documented disaster shattered the public’s faith in Zeppelins, which were, at the time, considered the safest mode of air travel available.
During the 1920s and 1930s, Zeppelins had operated regular flights, totting civilians back and forth between Germany and the Americas. But all of that stopped in 1937. The incident effectively killed the use of dirigibles as a commercially viable mode of passenger transport, ending the golden age of the airship not with a whimper, but with a horrific bang that was photographed and then syndicated around the globe.
The Photograph That Saved the Planet
"The Tetons - Snake River"
Ansel Adams, 1942
Adams’ passion for the land wasn’t limited to vistas he framed through the lens. In 1936, he accompanied his photos to Washington to lobby for the preservation of the Kings Canyon area in California. Sure enough, he was successful, and it was declared a national park.
The Photograph That Kept Che Alive
"The Corpse of Che Guevara"
Freddy Alborta, 1967
Unenthused by his efforts to incite revolution among the poor and oppressed in Bolivia, the nation’s army (trained and equipped by the U.S. military and the CIA) captured and executed Guevara in 1967. But before dumping his body in a secret grave, they gathered around for a strategic photo op. They wanted to prove to the world that Che was dead, in hopes that his political movement would die with him. in fact, anticipating charges that the photo had been faked, Che’s thoughtful captors amputated his hands and preserved them in formaldehyde.
The Photograph that Allowed Geniuses to Have a Sense of Humor
"Einstein with his Tongue Out"
Arthur Sasse, 1951
The Photograph That Made the Surreal Real
Philippe Halsman, 1948
The photograph is Halsman’s homage both to the new atomic age (prompted by physicist’ then-recent announcement that all matter hangs in a constant state of suspension) and to Dalí’s surrealist masterpiece "Leda Atomica" (seen on the right, behind the cats, and unfinished at the time). It took six hours, 28 jumps, and a roomful of assistants throwing angry cats and buckets of water into the air to get the perfect exposure.
But before settling on the "Atomicus" we know today, Halsman rejected a number of other concepts for the shot. One was the idea of throwing milk instead of water, but that was abandoned for fear that viewers, fresh from the privations of World War II, would condemn it as a waste of milk. Another involved exploding a cat in order to capture it "in suspension," though that arguably would have been a waste of cats.
Halsman’s methods were as unique as they were effective. His celebrity "jump" portraits appeared on at least seven Life magazine covers and helped usher in a new - and radically more adventurous - era of portrait photography.
The Photograph That Lied
"Loch Ness Monster
But the party almost ended in 1994, when a report was published saying that model-maker Christian Spurling admitted to faking the photo. According to Spurling’s statement, his stepfather, Marmaduke Wetherell, worked as a big game hunter and had been hired by London’s Daily Mail to find the beast. But rather than smoke out the creature, he decided to fake it. Wetherell, joined by Spurling and his son, Ian, built their own monster to float on the lake’s surface using a toy submarine and some wood putty. Ian actually took the photo, but to lend more credibility to the story, they convinced an upstanding pillar of the community - surgeon Robert Kenneth Wilson - to claim it as his own. Just goes to prove the old adage, "The camera never lies." People, on the other hand, do.
The Photograph That Almost Wasn’t
"Gandhi at his Spinning Wheel"
But that wasn’t all. The ascetic Mahatma wasn’t to be spoken to (it being his day of silence.) And because he detested bright light, Bourke-White was only allowed to use three flashbulbs. Having cleared all these hurdles, however, there was still one more - the humid Indian weather, which wreaked havoc on her camera equipment. When time finally came to shoot, Bourke-White’s first flashbulb failed. And while the second one worked, she forgot to pull the slide, rendering it blank.
She thought it was all over, but luckily, the third attempt was successful. In the end, she came away with an image that became Gandhi’s most enduring representation. it was also among the last portraits of his life; he was assassinated less than two years later.
"Le Violon d’Ingres" is perhaps his best-known photograph, and one of his earliest. Like many pieces from the Dada movement (which Ray is credited with bringing to the United States), it’s a visual pun. By drawing f-holes on his model’s back, he points out the similarities between the body of a woman and the body of a violin. But it’s a literal pun, as well. Both the model’s dress and pose echo a famous painting by French artist Jean-Auguste-Dominiqe Ingres, whose hobbies were depicting female nudes and playing the violin.
More than just highbrow it, however, Ray’s work was far ahead of its time. By ridiculing a now-obsolete concept - the photographic image as literal interpretation of reality - his pictures foreshadowed our own digital revolution