In 1826, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took what is considered the world’s first photograph. The image, View from the Window at Le Gras, is a simple one: a view of Niépce’s estate in Burgundy. But it’s also an incredible accomplishment, as it was taken using a camera obscura and required an eight-hour exposure time.
Since then, photography has come a long way. And while there are countless great photographs that have been taken in the intervening years, there is one that is considered by many to be the best photo of all time: Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange.
Lange was a documentary photographer who worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Great Depression. In February of 1936, she was traveling through California when she came across a migrant workers’ camp near Nipomo. There she met Florence Owens Thompson and her seven children.
Thompson had been living in the camp for several weeks with her family after being forced to leave their farm in Oklahoma due to dust storms. Lange took six photos of Thompson and her children; three were published in popular magazines and newspapers at the time and helped raise awareness of the plight of migrant
Man Jumping the Puddle Henri Cartier-Bresson, 1932
Henri Cartier-Bresson’s 1932 photo of a man jumping a puddle is often considered the best photo of all time. The photo captures the perfect moment of a man in midair, his legs and arms outstretched as he clears the water. It’s a beautiful image that conveys both action and motion, and it’s been praised for its technical perfection.
Cartier-Bresson was a French photographer who was one of the founders of modern photojournalism. He was known for his candid shots of everyday life, and his 1932 photo of a man jumping a puddle is one of his most iconic images. The photo was taken in Germany during the Weimar Republic, and it captures a moment of joy amid the hardships of that era.
The man in the photo has never been identified, but he has come to symbolize hope and resilience in the face of adversity. Cartier-Bresson’s photograph is an enduring reminder that even in tough times, there are moments of happiness to be found.
V-J Day in Times Square – Alfred Eisenstaedt, 1945
On August 14, 1945, Japan announced its surrender to the United States, effectively ending World War II. In response, Americans took to the streets in celebration. One of the most iconic images from that day is Alfred Eisenstaedt’s “V-J Day in Times Square.”
The photo shows a sailor passionately kissing a woman in a white dress amid the chaos of Times Square. The woman has since been identified as dental assistant Greta Zimmer Friedman. The sailor is believed to be George Mendonsa, a Navy veteran who died in February 2019 at the age of 95.
Eisenstaedt was on assignment for Life magazine when he captured the image. He later said he didn’t know the identities of either person in the photo.
“People tell me that when I’m in heaven they will recognize me as the guy who took that picture,” Eisenstaedt once said.
The photo has come to symbolize both victory and unity during a time of great turmoil and upheaval. It remains one of the most recognizable and defining images of WWII – and perhaps all time.
Gandhi and the Spinning Wheel – Margaret Bourke-White, 1946
In 1946, LIFE magazine photographer Margaret Bourke-White captured one of the most iconic images of the 20 t h century: a close-up portrait of Indian independence leader Mahatma Gandhi spinning thread on a charkha, or spinning wheel. The photo became an instant classic, and has come to symbolize both Gandhi’s commitment to simple living and his fight for India’s independence.
In the years since its publication, the photo has been widely reprinted and referenced in popular culture. It was even featured on a postage stamp in 1962. Today, it remains one of the most recognizable images of Gandhi – and one of the most celebrated photos ever taken.
The Burning Monk – Malcom Browne, 1963
In 1963, American photojournalist Malcolm Browne captured what would become an iconic image of the Vietnam War – a Buddhist monk, his body engulfed in flames. The photo, simply titled “The Burning Monk”, would come to represent the religious protests against the South Vietnamese government and its treatment of Buddhists.
The events leading up to the photograph began on May 8 t h 1963 when Thich Quang Duc, a prominent Buddhist monk in Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in Saigon. Thich Quang Duc’s suicide was intended as a protest against the Diem regime’s persecution of Buddhists. When news of his death spread, hundreds of other monks and nuns followed suit by self-immolating across the country.
As violence continued to escalate in Vietnam, Malcolm Browne was sent to Saigon as a correspondent for The New York Times. On June 11 t h 1963, he happened to be near Ba Hieu Temple when he saw smoke billowing from inside. He rushed into the temple and found another monk burning himself alive. Browne quickly took several photos of the scene before being escorted out by police.
It was one of these photos – The Burning Monk – that would come to symbolize both the brutality of war and the power of religious protest. In addition to its shocking content, what makes this photo so special is its composition and timing. Browne managed to capture not only the devastation caused by self-immolation but also the calm resolve on Thich Quang Duc’s face seconds before his death.
This single image had a profound impact on public opinion about US involvement in Vietnam and helped turn international opinion against the war effort. For many people around the world, The Burning Monk came to represent everything that was wrong with US foreign policy at that time