Updated: Aug 17, 2020
Art for long has been the flag bearer for many social, political, and economic revolutions.
Photographs from different eras, regions, and countries have played a crucial role in the making of the modern world. There can't be any definitive list of the most impactful photos over the history of mankind.
Here, we shall tell you the story behind 5 of the many influential photographs that have been unknowingly ingrained into our brains for a lifetime.
Teton and the Snake River
This shot was taken in Grand Teton National Park, Wyoming in 1942 as a part of the Mural Project, commissioned to Ansel Adams by the Department of the Interior, US Government.
The project aimed to create a photo mural for the department building.
Upon one glance it looks like an ordinary landscape in the wild. But when looked at closely, the fine use of photography principles in the composition such as depth of field, and the snaking river leading eyes to the snow-capped peaks, unearth how technically sound the composition of the image is. This image is also a perfect example of the Zone System (developed by himself), and you can see the extremities of the tonal values from the snow peaks to the harsh shadows of the forestry mountains.
This photograph and a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Baker Beach by Ansel were recorded on the Voyager Golden Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft.
Voyager 1 is the farthest man-made object. At present, it is nearly 20 billion kilometres away from the Earth. That puts The Tetons and the Snake River among the images that have gone farthest from the home of mankind.
These images were selected to convey information about humans, plants and animals, and geological features of the Earth to a possible alien civilization.
Adams' signature black and white photographs with a bold composition are inspired by his appreciation for natural beauty and a strong conservation ethic.
An outspoken environmentalist, and an artist, he hoped to educate the public about the national parks through his works and evoke a sense of appreciation for nature's beauty.
Atomic Bombing of Nagasaki
The image captures the atomic bombing of Nagasaki on August 9, 1945, and was taken by Charles Levy, the bombardier.
August 1945 was the first – and only – time that atomic bombs were used in warfare.
As World War II was entering its sixth year, Nazi Germany had surrendered in May but the Japanese refused to accept the terms of surrender. The United States called for the unconditional surrender of the Japanese armed forces and stated that failure to comply would result in “prompt and utter destruction”.
Three days after an atomic bomb nicknamed Little Boy obliterated Hiroshima, Japan, U.S. forces dropped an even more powerful weapon dubbed Fat Man on Nagasaki.
Some 70,000 people probably died as a result of initial blast, heat, and radiation effects.
Officials censored photos of the bomb’s devastation, but Levy’s image was the only one to show the full scale of the mushroom cloud from the air and was circulated widely.
The Struggling Girl
This poignant photograph by Kevin Carter, captures an emaciated child collapsed on the ground from hunger on her way to a feeding center in famine-ravaged Sudan while a vulture ominously stalks him in the background.
Carter waited 20 minutes for the vulture to come dangerously close by before taking his photograph and scaring the vulture off.
The child in the image was originally assumed to be a girl, but in 2011, the child's father revealed the child was actually a boy, Kong Nyong, and had been taken care of by the UN food aid station.
The photograph was first published in the New York Times (which later described it as “a metaphor for Africa’s despair”) and earned Carter the 1994 Pulitzer Prize in the Feature Photography category.
Though the photo helped draw enormous attention to the humanitarian crisis that was engulfing Sudan, it was criticized by others who felt that Carter should have helped the girl and was instead exploiting her suffering for his gain. The real vulture, they said in vitriolic hate mail, was Carter himself.
This haunting shot thus became the boiling pot of controversies and debates around the ethical dilemma photojournalists face on ground zero.
On 27 July 1994, barely two months after having received his Pulitzer Prize, the 33-year-old photojournalist could no longer bear the "vivid memories of killings & corpses & anger & pain...of starving or wounded children, of trigger-happy madmen, often police, of killer executioners.." and died of suicide.
The Leap into Freedom
The photograph was captured by a 19 year old photographer, Peter Leibing, and shows Hans Konrad Schumann, an East German border guard defecting to West Germany by jumping over the barbed wire barricade.
On August 15, 1961, Hans Konrad Schumann, 19, a non-commissioned officer from the GDR, was on guard on the corner of Ruppiner Strasse and Bernauer Strasse, where two days prior they started to construct the Berlin Wall (which at that point was just a barbed-wire fence less than one meter high).
From the other side of the wire, West Germans were shouting to him, Komm’ rüber! – “Come over.” A West German police car pulled up and sat there waiting for him. Schumann dropped his submachine gun, leaped over the barbed wire, quickly jumped into the police car, and was driven away from the area by the West Berlin police.
The incident itself took place in six seconds.
It made Schumann, reportedly the first known East German soldier to flee, into a poster child for those yearning to be free, while lending urgency to East Germany’s push for a more permanent Berlin Wall.
During the years that the Berlin wall existed, Eastern Germans made thousands of attempts to cross it.
Such attempts usually had a tragic ending: several hundred people were shot, and thousands were arrested. The leap thus also symbolized the repressions of the Berlin Wall.
V-J Day in Times Square
This iconic photograph captures a single moment of unbridled joy, in Times Square, when World War II ended on August 14, 1945, and tumultuous joy swept across the streets of New York City.
This beautiful image by Alfred Eisenstaedt, became the most famous and frequently reproduced picture of the 20th century, forming the basis of our collective memory of that transformative moment in world history.
But, there's something more to this picture.
According to the photographer’s account, the sailor was elated, weaving through the streets and kissing women as he went along. Eisenstaedt waited for the sailor in black to approach the female nurse, who was wearing all white.
Retellings of this incident strike a different tone in the present day than they may have in past decades, in light of global conversations on how consent is given and sexual assault are defined.