The Ten Most Iconic Photographs of All Time!

I am being absolutely arbitrary and subjective here.  These are my thoughts on the history of photography.  Some of these photos were even taken before I was born.  Nevertheless, in my own studies, and in always looking for inspiration, I’ve either seen or stumbled across some of the most iconic photographs of all time.  Some of these are pretty shocking.  Others are just amazing for the serendipitous moment in time that they captured.  Yet all of them as photographs make a statement.  They tell a story, capture a moment in time, and most importantly, grab your attention!

This is just my opinion – others may have different ones (and you are welcome to them).  I’ve tried to make selections that touch on all facets of life, including sports, journalism, and exploration.  After all, photography is about sharing a vision you have with the world.  Here, in no particular order, are ten of the most powerful visions I’ve ever seen.

Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima

1.  Raising of the Flag at Iwo Jima (as displayed from the Wikipedia page)

Why I think this image deserves to be in the Top Ten:  First off, I am biased.  The patriotic nature of this image at suggesting the indomitable nature of American spirit and pride is definitely present.  Second, I believe this image shows that soldiers in the face of almost insurmountable odds were able to accomplish their goal.  Third, the photograph is both topical for the time, and really amazes you when you think about what the photographer also must have gone through to capture the image.  Finally, the composition is also one that really draws your eye to one and only one thing in the image – the flag.


2.  Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster (from the Wikipedia Page)

I lived through this.  I remember the sickening feeling, and the absolute horror I felt when this happened.  At what was probably the peak of space exploration, the Challenger Explosion shocked not only the U.S.A., but the entire world.  In the aftermath of the ordeal, it seems like every country on the planet reached out to us in our time of sorrow.  That being said, the story it told was pretty compelling.  It was clear there were no survivors.  It was pretty clear what had happened.  Yet look at this photograph again.  Will you ever see anything like this again in your lifetime?  I hope not.  The plumage of smoke and debris is definitely iconic.  No one will ever forget, and space exploration has changed forever as a result of this.  That is iconic.

Marilyn Monroe

3. Marilyn Monroe - Pose from “The Seven Year Itch” 

Marilyn Monroe defined an era.  Her role in “The Seven year Itch” really was an incredible one in how photography and video changed the roles of women.  The idea of sex was now out in the open, and (I think) it is largely thankful to this photograph.  Men wanted her, and women wanted to be her.  Heck, I’ve seen photographers re-create this scene in tribute to her and the era.  It brought the idea out that women can be sexy and beautiful, and still maintain the admiration of the country, if not the world.  The pose is now known as the Marilyn Pose, and the dress is equally imitated.  I don’t know how else to define iconic, but this works for me.

I Have a Dream

4. Martin Luther King – “I Have a Dream” from Wikipedia

Martin Luther King represents so much to so many people.  He was a visionary, a man who spoke of principles and whose actions followed his guiding principles.  At a time of serious change in society, his vision captured the essence of changes in society, which was no better exemplified than in this image showing the millions who turned out on the Washington Mall to hear him speak.  The photograph speaks volumes, speaks to so many, and really sparked a major change in societal views in the United States.  That’s iconic!

Omayra Sanchez

5. Omayra Sanchez, captured mere minutes before her death - from Wikipedia

This image personified the notion of photographers as journalists, and while many more have come before and even after, the human condition here was so powerful, for a photographer to have the fortitude to document the story really amazes me.  The backstory here is that a volcano erupted in Colombia, and international criticism resulted from the lack of a response from the government, as well as backlash at the photographer for even daring to take the photo (this happened in 1985).  The girls bravery, courage, and dignity speaks to the truest sense of what we all should aspire to be even in the face of the grimmest fears imaginable.  I am not sure I could do that.  Definitely iconic.

6.  Kennedy Salute – from his Wikipedia page entry

JFK Jr. was a mere baby when his father was shot in 1963 – he was 3 years old!  While the assassination of JFK is probably one of the most sobering moments in recent U.S. history, the image, captured by Stan Stearns, showing a child’s symbolic gesture truly touched the hearts of everyone worldwide.  His own untimely passing some 36 years later was also met with the sadness of a nation.  The photograph itself though, remains as a symbol of both those who have gone before us, and of potential for future promise.  Now granted, my own bias toward U.S. history is evident, I’ve not seen image from other countries that span generations as powerful as this.  Iconic, for sure!

7. The Earth from Times Square (source: Wikipedia)

Possibly one of my ow favorites, because it really proves the whole idea of changing perspectives.  Before this shot, taken from Apollo 17, the whole idea of capturing our entire world in a single photograph was one of science fiction, not science.  It also changed the perception we as humans have of our planet.  We are no longer bound by its gravity!  It speaks to the whole idea of exploration, and changing your vision.  How more visionary can one get than this?  To me, this is nothing but iconic!


8.  Tank Man – Tianamen Square: (source: Wikipedia)

Staring down the barrel of a canon’s gun in Tianamen Square in China, a still unknown protestor literally stood alone against the oppressive forces of the government.  And it wasn’t just one tank,not even two, or three,  it was four tanks!  Yeah, if this were me, I would have yielded!  Heck, I yield in my car to an 18-wheeler… And to think of what was going through the mind of the photographer who captured this image, both when he took it, and how he was still able to get out of China to share the image with the AP to share with the world.  Pretty darn amazing!  It told the story of what was going on inside the border of China better than anything else.  The truest juxtaposition of all – human spirit standing up in a non-violent protest against the tyranny of its government.  Reports after this are inconclusive both to the identity of the man, his whereabouts or what happened, but the photographer defintely captured an iconic moment in world history!

V J Day in Times Square

9.  VJ Day in Time Square (source: Wikipedia)

Photographs, more than anything else, tell stories of the human condition.  This spontaneous kiss in NYC, came shortly after WWII was over, when the announcement was made by then-President Truman. I think this stands as one of the most iconic photographs ever, and also typifies the spontanaity that is the essence of photo-journalism.  Many kisses and photographs since have been done in homage to this scene.  It also expresses the virtue of “love” over “war”.  Talk about iconic…

Phantom Punch

10. Phantom Punch: Clay vs. Liston (source: PTLDME)

As a sports fan, I had to include a photograph from the Sports World, but with so many to choose from, this was probably one of the most difficut for me to choose.  Buckner’s error? Willie Mays over-the-shoulder catch? I could go on and on.  Many are iconic.  I chose this one because of the story.

Normally in a boxing match, when an opponent is knocked to the ground, the standing person retreats to their corner.  Clay did no such thing, as shown in the photo.  He stood over Liston shouting at him to “Get Up and Fight”.  There were accusations of a phantom punch, Liston taking a fall because he was in debt to the Mob, and many other rumors.  Nevertheless, the image is pretty incredible.  A thundering man, apparently having knocked another down, and still showing the fury, and challenging him to continue was an incredible moment in Sports History. To me, this is iconic!

My opinions are just that – mine.  This is not authoritative. In fact, the comments are there for you to share your own thoughts on the most iconic images of all time.

Think about it…find the images yourselves, and if they are open to share (think Wikipedia or other GNU applicable sources), feel free to share them.  Ultimately the goal is to find photographs that are compelling, inspiring, and define the human condition.  As someone once said (I think it was Joe McNally), emotion trumps everything.  If you find images that bring out an emotional response, it has accomplished its goal.  The most emotional images are likely the most inspiring…and the most iconic.  The above photos I believe are all emotional and iconic!


In case the tryptophan kicks in prematurely tomorrow, this may be the last post of the week, so if I forget, have a Happy Thanksgiving!

26 comments for “The Ten Most Iconic Photographs of All Time!

  1. blaa

    you are obviously an american. you need to get out more.

    • Jason

      Read my disclaimer, and rather than flame, post suggestions to more images. Don’t be a hater

  2. Willis David Hoover

    Correction: It was not a New York Times correspondent who first got it wrong about Joe Rosenthal “staging” the iconic Iwo Jima photo, but a Time magazine reporter. As reported in “Flags of Our Fathers” by James Bradley with Ron Powers, “Time magazine, on its radio program, Time Views the News, broadcast the ‘Staged’ interpretation…, Joe Rosenthal did his best to set the record straight…, and his wire service, the Associated Press, demanded and received a public apology from Time about the error. It would be the first of many false claims, followed by press apologies.”

    • Jason

      Thanks for the info…appreciate the contribution/education. Just goes to show ya, don’t always believe what you read!

  3. Willis David Hoover

    The iconic Iwo Jima flag raising photo from World War II was not – repeat NOT – staged. The photograph taken by Joe Rosenthal won the Pulitzer Prize and was, at least at the time, thought to be the most reproduced photograph in history. But, for Rosenthal there was an eternal downside. The story that the picture was staged stems from New York Times article — published soon after Rosenthal’s photo ran round the world — that was based on a misunderstood statement overheard by the writer of the Times piece. Although the Times soon recognized the error ran a correction, the “staged photo” stigma remained forever stalled in the American psyche. Not long before he died, Joe Rosenthal told me that decades after the Times correction, more people still believed the Iwo Jima picture was staged than thought otherwise. That remains the case to this day. – Willis David Hoover, writer

  4. at

    Hello there! This is my first visit to your blog!
    We are a team of volunteers and starting a new initiative in a
    community in the same niche. Your blog provided us beneficial information
    to work on. You have done a wonderful job!

  5. John Simms

    -Ten most iconic images-
    I am new to this site. I think your list is interesting and I agree with many.
    However, your comments about #10 need to be addressed. While I don’t remember the names, I do recall some interesting facts.
    1- Clay/Ali did not stand over Liston and shout. He moved before the ref. got there. If you ever see the video it will show this.
    2- The photographer only got two frames.
    3- The man standing ringside between Clay’s legs was the arrogant ‘supervisor’ of the shooter. He sent the ‘kid’ to the other side of the ring because he “didn’t have enough time on the job to stand with the pros”. So, there are two people immortalized in this photo- the winner and the “pro” who wouldn’t give a newbie a chance.

  6. robert e

    Interesting choices, and one completely new to me: Omayra Sanchez. Thanks. But #7 reads “Earth from Times Square”. I’m sure you meant someplace else (btw the photograph is known as “Big Blue Marble”). I agree with David; at least a photographer byline would be a propos (especially on a photography blog!).

  7. Lou

    slightly Americancentric, SLIGHTLY

    • Jason

      Very ethnocentric – I do not deny my American identity, and yes, my views of the world are very much colored by where I live in it. Unfortunate perhaps, but I do not have the funds or (ironically) the freedom to travel as much as I would like to get a more global view…nonetheless, thanks for stopping in.

  8. Bill

    Excellent list. I have seen the all except Omayra Sanchez. Very interesting story with each.

  9. at

    I nice selection. I guess as per the comments above, this is a topic that would know doubt give 10 totally different shots depending who was choosing. Personally, I would have included some of these, I think the pictures from 9/11 would feature somewhere for me too. Great post!

  10. Hugo Toledo

    Thanks for the article. I enjoyed it.

    When you get a moment, you should replace “Columbia” with “Colombia”. The former is alludes to (Christopher) Columbus and the latter is the name of the South American nation.

    Fact: I was born in Barranquilla, Colombia and I now reside in Columbus, Ohio, so this distinction always catches my attention.


    • Jason

      My apologies – I am usually quite careful with my write-ups. The error has been corrected, and thank you for bringing it to my attention! :-) Hope to see you again soon!

  11. Ed Berry

    Nice selection. Both the Iwo Jima phota and the Times Square VJ Day pic were posed

    • Jason

      Interesting to know about the VJ Day shot – I know several others were posed, but had thought (based on the Wikipedia article and on other details I’d read, that this particular and specific pose was captured spontaneously).

  12. John Smith

    Why pictures like the Hiroshima bombing naked girl aren’t here? this post seems very partial to me…

    • Sean Kercher

      The naked girl was from Vietnam. She was covered in napalm. Sadly, there were no photographers on the ground to cover that initial terror from Hiroshima.

      Great list. I would have chosen the picture of the first Iwo Jima flag raising, but this is definitely the more symbolic one.

      • Jason

        Yeah, there were several patriotic types of images, but I ended up going with this one for the reason you nailed – the symbolic nature of it! Thanks for stopping in and hope to see you again soon!

    • Jason

      I fully acknolwedge that this post is biased. Feel free to add to the discussion by mentioning your own thoughts on what should be in the top ten iconic photos…although I think you are referring to the Napalm from Vietnam as there would have been no photographers to capture the nuclear explosion on either Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

      Finally, I wanted to capture as broad a swath as possible. There are many tragic photos from history and I was torn amongst many, including the one from Vietnam. Others I considered included the Viet assassination by pistol shot, the Sudanese child crawling toward a humanitarian camp while a vulture waited, and many more. I wanted images to be both striking and not entirely sickening.

      Thanks for stopping in though and sharing your thoughts. Hope to see you again! :-)

      • at

        The “naked girl” is Phan Th? Kim Phúc. Sad that our photographs so seldom get past the event and encourage us to know the people. Speaking of people, it’d be great to see references to the photographers who made these images.

        • at

          I recently saw an article on her, but for the life of me I can’t remember where it was now.

          But as I mentioned on G+, it’s a great list and I didn’t even know about #5 so it was educational as well :)

        • Jason

          Great idea David! Thanks for stopping by to share your thoughts, and something is already in the works along the lines of your suggestion! :-)

  13. Oisin Conolly

    Great collection if photos. Thanks for giving the back story to them too. Most other “top 10 …” Lists generally just show the photo and maybe a caption.

Comments are closed.