Top 10 Iconic Moments Captured in Photos
VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton
WRITTEN BY: Nick Roffey
These photos were worth a thousand words … and then some. For this list, we're looking at some of the most incredible photos of historic moments. We'll be focusing on stunning shots of pivotal events, and photos that became iconic representations of their eras. Our countdown includes Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, V-J Day in Times Square, Tank Man, and more! Did YOUR favorite photos make the list? Let us know in the comments!
Script written by Nick Roffey
Top 10 Iconic Moments Captured in Photos
These photos were worth a thousand words … and then some. Welcome to Watchmojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the top 10 iconic moments captured in photos.
For this list, we’re looking at some of the most incredible photos of historic moments. We’ll be focusing on stunning shots of pivotal events, and photos that became iconic representations of their eras.
#10: The First Manned, Powered, Heavier-Than-Air Flight
In the 1890s, brothers Orville and Wilbur Wright opened a bicycle shop to cash in on the latest craze. But their real passion ... was human flight. They began with gliders, before building up to powered aircraft. On December 17, 1903, the brothers made the first manned flight of a powered aeroplane, the Wright Flyer. Orville piloted, while Wilbur ran alongside for balance. The moment was captured in this well-known photo taken by one John T. Daniels, who’d actually never seen a camera before. Orville had preset the camera, but Daniels was so excited he almost forgot to trigger the shutter. Turns out, his very first photo was one of the all-time greats!
#9: The Attack on Pearl Harbor
Until Japan’s fateful attack on Pearl Harbor, the US had remained formally neutral while war raged in Europe. The Japanese plan was to cripple the US Pacific Fleet while they invaded US and British overseas territories. On the morning of December 7, 1941, 353 Japanese aircraft descended on the naval base, sinking four battleships and leaving 2,403 Americans dead. There is footage of the attack, but there’s something truly haunting about the photos of the event, capturing the awful magnitude of the destruction. The strike provoked the US into joining the fray, marking a major turning point in the Second World War.
#8: Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima
It’s one of the most recognizable images from World War II. Together, US marines heave the American flag upright atop Mount Suribachi on the island of Iwo Jima, Japan. Captured by Joe Rosenthal on February 23, 1945, the iconic shot is one in a series taken around the same time. The peak was captured after four fierce days of fighting, and the flag was actually the second raised there, as the first was too small. The photo won Rosenthal a Pulitzer, and became an enduring symbol of brotherhood, victory, and determination. The moment is the inspiration for the Marine Corps War Memorial in George Washington Memorial Parkway, Virginia.
#7: The Hindenburg Disaster
Today, it looks like something from another planet. But in 1937, the Hindenburg was touted as the future of commercial air travel. These hopes were dashed on May 6th,when the German airship went up in flames during docking at Lakehurst Maxfield Field in New Jersey. A static spark may have ignited the blaze, although the reasons for the fire are debated. The fabric skin and hydrogen inside went up in flames and the ship came crashing down, killing 36 passengers and crew. This famous photo was taken by Sam Shere, shooting in a hurry “from the hip”; an equally memorable photo of the tragedy was taken by Murray Becker. The disaster proved to be the last nail in the coffin for the airship era.
#6: V-J Day in Times Square
The war was finally over! On August 14, 1945, news of Japan’s surrender sent jubilant crowds cheering through the streets across America. In Times Square, thousands gathered in a rain of cloth scraps and ticker tape. Amid the celebration, photojournalist Alfred Eisenstaedt spotted a U.S. Navy sailor kissing a woman in what looked like a nurse uniform - later identified as dental assistant Greta Zimmer Friedman. Victor Jorgensen shot the same moment from a different angle. Eisenstaedt’s photo was an instant sensation, capturing the mood of the country. Since the 2010s, the narrative around the photo has changed, since Friedman hadn’t consented to the kiss. It’s remained a cultural icon, a symbol of the war’s end.
#5: Migrant Mother
As the world economy collapsed, drought devastated the American heartland, and dust storms hid the sky. The Great Depression was a dark time that just seemed to pile one disaster on top of another. In the mid-1930s, photojournalist Dorothea Lange roamed the California countryside, documenting rural poverty. Her image of Florence Owens Thompson, a migrant worker of Cherokee descent, summed up the desperation of the times. The lines of worry, and the children huddling beside her, capture an anxiety that was felt across the country. Lange’s images resulted in aid being rushed to the camp of workers . . . but Thompson and her many children had already moved on.
The mushroom cloud of a nuclear bomb has become a universal symbol of doom. But before August 6th, 1945, this harrowing new weapon had only been used in tests. At 8:15am that morning, US bomber Enola Gay released an atomic bomb nicknamed “Little Boy” over the Japanese city of Hiroshima. A reconnaissance plane carrying scientific observers took this photo of the mushroom cloud. The city was flattened, leaving a smoking ruin; thousands were vaporised instantly, while others died more slowly from radiation. Three days later, the US dropped a second bomb on Nagasaki - bringing the total casualties to between 129,000 to 226,000. Japan surrendered six days later. It was the world’s first introduction to the awful might of nuclear weapons.
#3: Tank Man
Even without context, “Tank Man” is an immediately arresting image. One man stands alone on a road, looking small as he confronts a line of tanks. On June 4th, 1989, the Chinese military fired on student-led demonstrators in Beijing, killing hundreds and possibly thousands. The students had been protesting corruption and calling for democratic reforms. A day after the Tiananmen Square Massacre, Associated Press photographer Jeff Widener caught sight of “Tank Man” stepping into the path of the vehicles, bringing them to a standstill before being dragged away. The identity of this “Unknown Rebel” remains a mystery, but his act of defiance led to one of the most iconic images of the 21st century.
#2: The Fall of the Berlin Wall
For three decades, the Berlin Wall divided West Berlin from Soviet-controlled East Germany. It was the ultimate symbol of the “Iron Curtain” separating Western Europe and the Eastern Bloc. So its fall on November 9, 1989 was about much more than a concrete barrier. That evening, an underprepared East German Communist official announced that East Germans would be permitted to cross into the West. It was supposed to be announced the next day, and require visas. In response, thousands flocked to the wall, and fortunately, the soldiers on guard decided not to fire, but let them through. As friends and families united, the crowd erupted in wild celebrations that continued for days, their joy captured in these photos.
#1: Man on the Moon
On July 20th, 1969, rapt viewers sat glued to their TV screens. The footage was fuzzy, but you could still make it out: man’s first steps on the moon. For the first time, humans had set foot on another terrestrial body. Photographs presented an even clearer picture. Which is pretty fortunate, because it’s a long way to go for a photo! In this shot of astronaut Buzz Aldrin, you can see the reflection of Apollo 11 Commander Neil Armstrong as he takes the picture. It wasn’t the only iconic shot taken during the Apollo missions. The famous “Earthrise” was taken by the crew of Apollo 8; a few years later, Apollo 17 brought us “The Blue Marble”, a stunning shot of our home from afar.