25 Most Iconic Photos That Changed The World

Most Iconic Photos That Changed The World

These are the most iconic photos of all time that are not about changing the world in one second, but about the possibility of mankind to “open a new door” with a slight push.

In this article, I’ve collected top 25 most iconic pictures that have influenced people’s lives and are the most recognizable all over the globe.

25 Most Iconic Photos of All Time

There is no universal way to make a photo iconic. Some images were included on this list because they turned out to be the first of their kind, others changed the way people think about something, and the rest literally influenced our life and headed it into a new direction.

1. Lennon & Yoko – Annie Leibovitz (1980)

world most amazing photos Taken by Annie Leibovitz photographer

Photographer Annie Leibovitz had to photograph John Lennon for the cover of Rolling Stone. After several attempts to make a portrait, as it was originally intended, the musician insisted on a group photo with his wife, who refused to be naked in front of the camera.

It became an iconic photograph because this shot, taken by Leibovitz, was the last professional image of the musician. John was killed near his apartment a few hours later.

Annie Leibovitz demonstrated a great talent and become one of the top portrait photographers. She is still engaged in shooting famous people and her works are featured on the pages of the world’s best photography magazines.

2. Pillars of Creation – NASA (1995)

most iconic pictures Taken by NASA

NASA has spent 7 years and billions of dollars designing and constructing the Hubble Space Telescope, which produced many invaluable shots. Among the latter, of course, is the “Pillars of Creation”.

The photograph shows clusters of interstellar gas and dust in the Eagle nebula in the Serpens constellation, located at a distance of about 7 thousand light years from the Earth. Some scientists believe that a cloud was formed as a result of the supernova explosion that occurred about 6 thousand years ago.

If the theory is true, then the “Pillars of Creation” themselves no longer exist, but because of the speed of light, we will be able to observe their destruction in a thousand years. Another reminder that everything in the space is not only spectacular, but also temporary.

3. Dalí Atomicus – Philippe Halsman (1948)

famous photos in history Taken by Philippe Halsman photographer

This portrait of the surrealist artist Salvador Dali, hovering in the air, was shot by an American photographer of Latvian origin Philippe Halsman long before modern computer editing technologies appeared. Today, this photo can be quite easily recreated in Photoshop, but, as you know, in 1948, these technologies were not available.

Dali Atomicus’ picture reveals the idea of zero gravity, depicting three cats flying in the air, a splash of water, an easel and Salvador Dali himself - they all seem to hover in the frame.

The name of the photo refers to Dali’s work Leda Atomica, which you can see on the right, behind the cats. Halsman said it took 28 attempts before he was pleased with the result.

4. Flight + Falling Drop of Milk – Edgerton (1986)

famous historical photos
famous historical photos
Taken by Harold Edgerton photographer

This is one of the most famous images that demonstrate the capabilities of new photography, namely the ability to capture a second. These frozen-in-motion photographs are the first of their kind.

Edgerton is the first person to use a stroboscope, or strobe light, to illuminate objects in motion. In this photo he was able to catch the flight of an insect, and also Harold Edgerton worked for several years to make a drop of milk look perfect in a picture.

He is also known for photographs depicting a bullet piercing an apple or an exploding balloon. However, “Milk Drop” remains the proof that photography can be a masterpiece.

5. D-Day – Robert Capa (1944)

famous war photos Taken by Robert Capa photographer

Among many images of history, this one is my favorite ones. I believe many people, especially those leaving in the western world, know about the D-Day, when more than 34 thousand Allied soldiers landed in Normandy to fight the Nazi army in the Second World War. Robert Capa, a photographer from Hungary, was among them and he took images of the troops trying to stop the Axis aggression.

Robert worked for LIFE magazine and his task was to show the terror of war and the struggle of soldiers participating in that military campaign. He had to spend more than an hour taking photos, while bombs were exploding and people were dying around him.

The 4 rolls of film were delivered to the LIFE office in London. The general manager stopped the press to get immediate pictures, which severely damaged the film and only several frames were left.

Though the image you can see here contains grain and blurry parts, the main thing is the feelings and thoughts it evokes. It is a wonderful example of famous war photos that look the way they should without any post-processing.

6. The Tetons and the Snake River – Ansel Adams (1942)

most iconic photos Taken by Ansel Adams photographer

Ansel Adams' photograph of the Tetons and the Snake River was included on the list of 116 images selected for the “Voyager Golden Record”, a spaceship that went into space in 1977 with the goal of presenting alien civilizations the information about the life and nature on the Earth.

There is an opinion that the photography era is divided into two epochs: before and after Ansel Adams. Adams is not just a photographer, he is a legend, a photo evangelist, the first restless perfectionist, experimenter and theorist of photography. He became world-famous after he took and presented B&W photos of the American West.

“The Tetons and the Snake River” saw the world in 1942 and became one of American iconic images. In addition to his unique artistic vision of the composition, Adams also used his musical education, while taking this shot.

So, this photo is an example of thorough understanding of technical aspects and deep knowledge of the photo printing and editing process.

7. Betty Grable's Legs – Frank Powolny (1943)

american iconic images Taken by Frank Powolny photographer

In 1943, American actress Betty Grable starred in the musical “Sweet Rosie O'Grady”. As part of the film’s advertising campaign, she posed for 20th Century Fox.

After the shooting was over, the photographer asked Grable to take another picture - where the girl stands with her back, looking over her shoulder and smiling dazzlingly. This iconic photograph became the prototype for the first pin-up poster: the image of the Platinum Blonde, which became super popular long before Marilyn Monroe appeared on the stage.

It was printed with a circulation of more than 50,000 copies every month.

The image of Betty Grable - not a fictional, but a real girl, whose legs and smile were insured at Lloyd's London for a million dollars, has become almost sacred to American soldiers. During the Second World War, they hung posters with Betty on the walls of the barracks.

The image was sketched on the fuselages of the bombers, folded four times and carried in a pocket next to the heart.

8. Olympics Black Power salute – John Dominis (1968)

iconic images photography Taken by John Dominis photographer

The Olympic Games in summer 1968 gave the world another sample of the most amazing photos of all time. After finishing a 200-meter race and winning gold and bronze medals, Smith and Carlos respectively, were staying on the podium while the US anthem was played.

They both turned to face the US flag and hold their hands raised until the award ceremony finished. Right after this event they were disqualified. Besides, both athletes and their colleague Peter Norman wore badges supporting human rights on their jackets.

Smith tried to explain this situation in his autobiography called “Silent Gesture”. He claimed it was not a “Black Power” salute, but an attempt to draw attention to human rights.

Though we can’t say that this is a famous photo that changed the world, it undoubtedly highlighted some burning problems of that period.

9. Invasion of Prague – Josef Koudelka (1968)

most powerful pictures in history Taken by Joseph Kudelka photographer

During the first seven days of the Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, thirty-year-old Josef Koudelka took a unique series of photographs, which was later secretly exported from the country.

The Magnum Photos agency published his photographs in many international magazines on the first anniversary of the invasion in 1969, without indicating the authorship.

The same year, Koudelka received a prestigious award: Overseas Press Club awarded the “anonymous Czech photographer” with a gold medal. Only in 1984, after the death of his father and at a time when the threat of reprisals for his family was over, he admitted for the first time that he was the author of those famous images.

10. Tank Man – Jeff Widener (1989)

famous war photos Taken by Jeff Widener photographer

One of the most iconic photographs that evoke the deepest feelings a person can have looking at the war images is “Tank Man” by Jeff Widener. It was taken on the 5th of June 1989, when the photographer was staying on the balcony of the Beijing Hotel waiting for a special moment.

He arrived at the place, because one day earlier there happened the terrible Tiananmen Square massacre, resulting in many deaths of pro-democracy demonstrators. He managed to take several images of injured people and scorched buses, when the column of tanks started moving out of the plaza.

The moment Widener focused his lens on the tanks he saw a man stepped in front of the war machines.

The man was persistent blocking tanks’ path and Jeff thought that there would be one more tragic death. Fortunately, the man was whisked away, but Widener managed to capture the moment that would later become a symbol of resistance to unjust regimes in different parts of our planet.

Other shooters also took similar photos, but Jeff was the first to transmit his over the AP wire and get published on the front pages of many magazines. The anonymity of that brave man adds even more symbolism to the photo.

11. Man on the Moon – Neil Armstrong (1969)

famous historical photos Taken by Neil Armstrong photographer

A photo of Buzz Aldrin staying on the Moon surface was taken on July 20, 1969. Looking at this iconic photograph, you can’t but think about peaceful and temporal part of our life and great things we can be still being alive.

In this image, we can see not only Aldrin staying in one of the millions of craters, but also Armstrong, reflected in the glass of the helmet. This double portrait was published most often than any other photograph from all missions of the “Apollo” program.

12. The Burning Monk - Malcolm Browne (1963)

most shocking photos of all time Taken by Malcolm Browne photographer

This is one of the most iconic photos that help attract attention to the heartbreaking consequences of the Buddhists oppression in Vietnam. In the photo, you can see the last minutes of Thich Quang Duc’s life, immolating himself on the Saigon street. Malcolm Browne was there at that time and understood that protests against the regime of their President Ngo Dinh Diem would lead to horrible events. Once he saw 2 monks doused an old man with gasoline and understood what would happen.

The picture he took later won the Pulitzer Prize and stirred up serious discussion in the US. The martyrdom of the old monk was the symbol of the insecurity and instability of his nation.

President Kennedy admitted that this famous historical photo made people doubt the correctness of American actions related to Diem’s government and encouraged them not to interfere with a coup in November.

13. Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter – Mapplethorpe (1979)

famous photos that changed the world Taken by Robert Mapplethorpe photographer

In 1979, American culture paid little attention to the issue of homosexuality, and the LGBT community was rather narrow and reserved. This photo of Brian Ridley and Lyle Heeter is a sadomasochistic outfit taken by Robert Mapplethorpe attracted lots of attention.

The portrait was shot in an ordinary living room to bring the problem beyond the discussion of the abnormality of such a relationship. The photographer was called a pioneer, but this did not stop the public from accusing and persecuting him.

All in all, the photographer got a subpoena. Mapplethorpe died from AIDS the year before the court hearing, but his work became one of the most iconic photos of all time.

14. The Pillow Fight of «Liverpool Four» - Benson (1964)

famous photos that changed the world Taken by Harry Benson photographer

Harry Benson is a photographer from Glasgow who wasn’t planning on shooting the Beatles. He was going to cover news in Africa when he got the assignment to take pictures of them in Paris.

He considered himself a serious journalist and didn’t want to shoot rock ’n’ roll stars. However, when Benson met the Beatles and heard their music for the first time, he wanted to continue working with them.

Harry Benson understood that he was doing the right job. The Beatles were at the peak of fame and he witnessed it. He took a famous pillow fight photo in a fancy George V Hotel on the night when the Beatles found out that their hit “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had become No. 1 in the U.S. chart.

This iconic photograph shows energetic and talented John, Paul, George and Ringo, who were enjoying probably the last moment of their wild innocence.

This shooting made Harry Benson one of the most famous photojournalists in England and the USA. His photo “The pillow fight” taken in 1964 at the Parisian George V hotel was included in the list of “100 most influential images of Time magazine”.

15. Pregnant Demi Moore - Annie Leibovitz (1991)

most iconic pictures Taken by Annie Leibovitz photographer

The next shot on the list of the best photographs in the world was taken by Annie Leibovitz too. A Hollywood star Demi Moore was on the cover of «Vanity Fair» magazine when she was seven months pregnant.

It was an unprecedented event for the media because earlier on such photos were not published on the covers of world magazines. Annie Leibovitz said that the purpose of this shooting was to create an image showing that a pregnant woman can also be desired, beautiful and sexy.

After this issue was published, the magazine lost a few advertisers who considered such a picture provocative and unacceptable. However, now a lot of media sources are ready to pay huge money for the possibility to photograph a celebrity when she’s pregnant.

16. Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston - Neil Leifer (1965)

famous photos in history Taken by Neil Leifer photographer

A lot of great photos are achieved by capturing people in the right place and at the right time. This is exactly what happened to a sports photographer Neil Leifer when he took probably the greatest sports picture of the century.

He said that during that event he had been on the right seat but, most importantly, he managed to capture that particular moment. On May 25, 1965, he went to the ring in Lewiston, Maine. On this day, a 23-year-old heavyweight boxing champion Muhammad Ali was fighting against a 34-year-old Sonny Liston, the man who had lost to him the year before.

After 1 minute and 44 seconds in the first round, Ali’s right fist touched Liston’s chin and Liston fell down. Neil Leifer captured the moment when Ali was towering over his defeated opponent and screaming to him “Get up and fight, sucker!”

Bright lights and clouds of cigar smoke in the ring created a wonderful studio for a great photo that Leifer used to his advantage. This is one of the most iconic photos in the world and it shows the power and boldness of Muhammad Ali that made him the most loved and respected athlete in the country when sports, politics and popular culture were in the disarray of the ‘60s.

17. Winston Churchill - Yousuf Karsh (1941)

famous historical photos Taken by Yousuf Karsh photographer

The photo of frowned Winston Churchill became a cover of LIFE magazine in May 1945. It was printed on millions of posters, post stamps and since recently – on five-pound banknotes.

Today, it is considered to be the most recognized picture of the former premier-minister and one of the most famous photos in history. The author of this photo, 33-year old Yousuf Karsh received $100 for it and the reputation of the portrait photography genius. To achieve it, he had to behave unconventionally.

On December 30, 1941, the British premier-minister came with a visit to Ottawa and the Canadian government hired Yousuf Karsh to shoot a portrait of the respectable guest. The shot needed to be taken right after the speech that Churchill had to deliver in front of the Parliament of Canada.

18. Guerillero Heroico - Alberto Korda (1960)

most powerful pictures in history Taken by Alberto Korda photographer

The next shot on this list of famous photos that changed the world is a picture of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara. It was taken by Alberto Korda the day after a ship had exploded in Havana Harbor, which caused multiple deaths of the crew and dockworkers.

Korda was covering the funeral in Revolución newspaper and concentrated on Fidel Castro who angrily accused the USA of initiating the explosion. At that moment, two pictures of Che Guevara that he took seemed irrelevant and the newspaper refused to publish them.

However, after the death of Che Guevara that lead to the guerrilla movement in Bolivia almost seven years later, the Cuban regime accepted him as a martyr for the movement. This made Korda’s photo of Che Guevara wearing a famous beret the main symbol of this movement.

Soon, this picture was recognized by artists, causes and advertisers from the whole world. It was placed everywhere, including protest art, underwear, soft drinks, etc.

The shot has become the cultural symbol for rebellion and one of the most famous and reproduced photos in the history that has been influential ever since.

20. Afghan Girl - Steve McCurry (1984)

best photo of all time Taken by Steve McCurry photographer

The cover of National Geographic from June 1985 became the most popular one throughout the entire history of the magazine. The author of the shot is Steve McCurry, a photojournalist from National Geographic.

He took this picture in 1984 when gathering the material about the Soviet-Afghan war. McCurry’s job was to cover the situation with refugees and there were a lot of them on the Afghan-Pakistan border. This is one of the most iconic photographs in the world and it was taken on color film without additional lighting. The “photo session” lasted just a few minutes.

Only after returning to Washington, when developing the film, McCurry understood how wonderful that picture was. Later, in 2002, he described it as one of those incredible, amazing moments in his work when everything goes as it should.

21. Vanishingly Rare Tribes - Brent Stirton (2007)

most iconic photos Taken by Brent Stirton photographer

Photojournalist Brent Stirton took this photo in 2007 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The main purpose of the trip was to show the wildlife and protection of the silver burned brave rangers.

This report is primarily about the Karo tribe. As you can see, in the pictures, many Aborigines stand with a Kalashnikov in their hands. Local residents explain that this is for self-defense, they are often attacked by bandits and poachers, trying to take them into slavery or seize property.

22. Surfing Hippos - Michael Nichols (2000)

most iconic photographs Taken by Michael Nichols photographer

There are seven billion people that occupy a specific amount of space. That’s why clean, untouched wilderness is disappearing all over the world. Africa, where a lot of lions and elephants live, is not an exception and the number of animals there is decreasing too.

That’s why this shot by Michael Nichols is called one of the most iconic photos. Nichols and Michael Fay, a researcher from the National Geographic Society, completed a difficult 2000-mile route from the Congo in central Africa to Gabon in the west part of the continent.

That was the place where Nichols took an amazing photo – hippos were swimming in the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean at midnight. This was something that not many people had managed to witness before. Hippos spend their time mostly in water, however, they usually prefer rivers and swamps instead of seas.

Omar Bongo, the president of Gabon got inspired by this photo and developed a system of national parks that now occupy 11% of the whole country. This makes it possible to save wild animals and preserve some space for them.

23. Kate Winslet - Peter Lindbergh (2017)

famous images Taken by Peter Lindberg photographer

Well-known photographer Peter Lindberg is a fighter for natural female beauty.

The fact is that in recent decades an absurd pattern has been imposed on the whole world: the weak half of humanity must certainly be thin, perfectly and strongly made up, cheerful and cheerful. Wrinkles, wrinkles, age spots and other skin imperfections are considered a terrible sin, and their owner - an untidy messenger.

But Peter managed to show incredibly beautiful women without retouching. It seems that his favorite model was Kate Winslet, who repeatedly posed for the photographer not only in closed studios, as in this photo, but also in other locations for famous magazines.

24. The Situation Room - Pete Souza (2011)

famous historical photos Taken by Pete Souza photographer

The next photo on the list of most iconic pictures was taken by Pete Souza on May 1, 2011, when he was in the Situation Room. At that time, U.S. forces raided Osama bin Laden’s Pakistan compound and killed him.

This picture doesn’t show the raid or the death of Bin Laden. It shows the people who were observing that secret operation in real time. Barack Obama decided to attack them but he and the rest of the people in the Situation Room were just watching.

In this picture, Barack Obama is sitting with his forehead frowned and observing the raid on the monitors. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is also present in this picture. She is sitting, covering her mouth and waiting to see what’s going to happen.

That evening, during his speech, Barack Obama announced the death of Bin Laden. The world has never seen the pictures of dead Bin Laden.

Souza’s photo expresses the tension of that huge moment and it is the only public photo showing the biggest victory over terrorism in history.

25. Couple Kissing – Rich Lam (2011)

most iconic pictures Taken by Rich Lam photographer

The fact that Canadians love hockey is not just a stereotype, it’s the truth. When the Vancouver Canucks lost to the Boston Bruins at a home game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals, the city got crazy and crushed that place.

It was a madhouse. That rebellion didn’t stop until late night and cost $5 million of damage and 140 injured people.

However, in the middle of that mess, something beautiful happened. Rich Lam took a photo of a kissing couple. The man in the picture was an Australian Scott Jones and the woman was his girlfriend, a Canadian Alex Thomas.

He approached her in order to take care when she got knocked to the ground by the police. It’s worth mentioning that this picture became popular all over the world and now is one of the most famous images in history.

Tata Rossi

Hi there, I'm Tata Rossi - a professional blogger, read more