Famous Photos in History

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In 1839, Sir John Herschel coined the word ‘photograph’ from the Greek root ‘photo,’ meaning ‘light,’ and ‘graph’ meaning ‘to write.’ So a photograph literally meant ‘writing with light.’ It had been so derived because a photo was the result of an exposure of the photosensitive material to light. Ancient Greek, Chinese, and Muslim philosophers were aware of the principles of optics. Camera obscura, the darkened room, had been used to capture photographs from the exterior into the dark rooms in the 5th century B.C. What made some photos famous in history was not only the advanced technique or the use of expensive materials, it was, in fact, the content of the photo that counted. What counted the most was the moment. A great event had been captured just like the moment the aircraft struck the Twin Towers on 9/11 or the moment the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima. It has not only been the celebrities which make photos famous as it has sometimes been the photographs of animals on the verge of extinction that become historical records, just like the photograph of the last Tasmanian tiger which is now extinct.

1. Building in Le Gras

Joseph Nicephore Niepce
Joseph Nicephore Niepce

The first ever permanent photograph in history was taken by Joseph Nicephore Niepce, a scientific-minded gentleman, who lived in his country estate near Chalon-sur-Saône, Burgundy in France. He started experimenting on plates of pewter, which is a malleable metal, comprised of 85-99% tin. In 1826, he set up a camera obscura in an upper story room of his house in Saint-Loup-de-Varennes. In the camera he put a pewter plate coated with an asphalt derivative of petroleum commonly known as bitumen of Judea. The plate was exposed for eight hours after which he washed it with oil of lavender and white petroleum which washed away the unexposed areas, and the result was the appearance of the first permanent photograph in the world.

2. Man’s First Step on the Moon

Man's First Step on the Moon
Man’s First Step on the Moon

The most famous photograph in the history of mankind is probably the photograph of Neil Armstrong’s bootprint on the surface of the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Aldrin were the first men to land on Moon by virtue of the Apollo 11 space flight. Armstrong spent about two and a half hours on the moon while Aldrin spent a little less time. Both collected 21.5 kgs of lunar material and brought it to Earth. Armstrong was the first to get out of the spacecraft. And setting his left boot on the surface of the moon at 2:56 UTC July 21, 1969 uttered the famous words ‘That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.’

3. The World Trade Center; 9/11 Attack

The World Trade Center; 9/11 Attack
The World Trade Center; 9/11 Attack

On September 11, 2001, 19 Al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked 4 airliners and deliberately crashed 2 of them; American Airlines Flight 11 and United Airlines Flight 175 into each of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. Both of the towers caught fire and collapsed within two hours. All 227 civilians and 19 hijackers on board were instantly killed. More than 3,000 people present in and around the complex were killed. The moment of impact has been photographed, and it is one of the most famous photos in history.

4.  Atomic Bombing at Hiroshima

Atomic Bombing at Hiroshima
Atomic Bombing at Hiroshima and Nagasaki

World War II ended in Europe after Germany signed its instrument of surrender on May 8, 1945. The U.S. along with the U.K. and Republic of China sought the surrender of Japan through the Potsdam Declaration on July 26, 1945 warning Japan with ‘Prompt and Utter Destruction’ in case of not surrendering. Japan ignored the ultimatum, and the U.S. dropped the atom bombs ‘Little Boy’ over Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 and ‘Fat Man’ over Nagasaki on August 9, 1945. The U.S. had chosen these cities to see the impact of the atom bombs on these otherwise intact cities. About 50,000 people in Hiroshima and almost 30,000 people in Nagasaki died on the very first day of the bombing. Almost the same number of people died within four months.

5. The Son My Massacre

The Son My Massacre
The Son My Massacre

Son My was a Vietcong stronghold  village in  My Lai and was codenamed as Pinkville by the Americans. On March 16, 1968, Charlie Company of 1st Battalion, 20th Infantry Regiment, 11th Brigade of the American Division indiscriminately mass murdered unarmed civilian children, women, and men. The event known as ‘Son My Massacre’ caused more than 350 deaths. Some women were raped, and many were gang raped before being killed. Twenty-six soldiers were tried for this massacre, and only 1 lieutenant was convicted of killing 22 villagers. He was sentenced to death but was released after only three years’ house arrest. The event was the American Holocaust in Vietnam.

6. Sharbat Gula, the Green-eyed Afghan Girl

Sharbat Gula, the Green-eyed Afghan Girl
Sharbat Gula, the Green-eyed Afghan Girl

Steve McCurry photographed the Afghani girl with green eyes in an Afghan refugee camp in the Northern area of Pakistan. There was something very peculiar in her eyes which looked simultaneously haunted and haunting. It inspired so many people. The portrait appeared on the cover of National Geographic. No one knew her name, and it was 17 years later that McCurry, along with a team of National Geographic television and film explorers revisited Pakistan and finally succeeded in finding her, now a married woman living in the vicinity of Torah Bora, the mountains subjected to carpet bombing by the U.S. Her name is Sharbat Gula, literally meaning ‘Nectar.’ Her husband is a baker in the Peshawer City of Pakistan.

7.  Last Tasmanian Tiger

Last Tasmanian Tiger
Tasmanian Tiger

Tasmanian tiger, also known as Tasmanian wolf, Tassis, or Zebra Opossum, was a marsupial mammal with their females having an abdominal pouch like the kangaroo. It had a pointed muzzle and weighed about 25 kgs. It measured about six feet long including its tail. It had about 13 to 20 tiger-like stripes which started from the shoulders in a smaller size and gradually increased in length ending near the tail. Its life span was seven years on average. Its overall appearance was like a ‘striped’ dog. This animal lived in Australia thousands of years ago but was confined only to Tasmania in later centuries. The animal is extinct or has disappeared completely and forever from the Earth. The last, living Tasmanian tiger was seen and photographed in a zoo where it died in 1936.

8. Migrant Mother

Migrant Mother
Migrant Mother

Dorothea Lange was an influential American documentary photographer best known for her photographs of the Great Depression Era. Her photograph titled ‘Migrant Mother’ is one of the most famous photos of that time. It was a photograph of Florence Owen Thompson along with her children taken by a Graflex camera in March, 1936. Recalling that photo Lange wrote, ‘I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother as if drawn by a magnet. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.’

9. A Child at Gunpoint

A Child at Gunpoint
A Child at Gunpoint

A ‘Child at Gunpoint’ is a haunting photo of the Holocaust. The child with its hands up is not exactly identified, yet some researchers suggest that he was Tsvi Nussabaum. In the introduction of the book A Child at Gunpoint by Richard Raskin, the publisher comments, ‘Widely regarded as the most haunting image we have of the Holocaust, the photo of a young boy with his hands up being driven from the Warsaw ghetto has served as a touchstone for everyone from the Nuremberg prosecutors to Elie Wiesel, and ‘¦’

10. First Digital Photo

First Digital Photo
First Digital Photo

‘First Digital Photo’ was produced in 1957 by Russel Kirch at the U.S. National Bureau of Standards which is currently known as NIST, National Institute of Standards and Technology. It was 20 years earlier than the invention of the first digital camera. Kirsch made it by scanning a photo of his three-month-old son. The camera used for the purpose weighed 8 pounds and it recorded a 0.01 mega pixel black-and-white photo to a cassette tape. The photo was displayed on a TV screen. The first photo was 176 x 176 pixels, low-resolution image. This invention revolutionized photography making it much faster, sharper, easier, and quite inexpensive.


Starting from the photos requiring exposure to light for days, the art and science of photography has developed so much that the realization of a photo needs no more than a split second’s exposure currently. What Camera Obscura was to the ancient times, the Web camera, storage, and sharing is to the modern times. With the advent of digital photography, the older techniques and materials like developing, fixing printing, and use of chemicals like potassium iodide, sodium hyposulphite, etc. have all gone obsolete and are now practically an historical record.

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