HISTORY Lists

The Fascinating Stories Behind 8 Famous Photos

By Elizabeth Nix
A picture might be worth a thousand words, but not every picture tells the whole story. Find out the fascinating details behind some of the world’s most iconic images, from the flag-raising on Iwo Jima to Albert Einstein sticking out his tongue at a photographer to the day Elvis Presley met Richard Nixon at the White House.

1. “Migrant Mother,” 1936, California

migrant mother

Credit: Dorothea Lange

In 1936, photographer Dorothea Lange shot this image of a destitute woman, 32-year-old Florence Owens, with an infant and two other of her seven children at a pea-pickers camp in Nipomo, California. Lange took the photo, which came to be called “Migrant Mother,” for a project commissioned by the New Deal’s Federal Resettlement Administration (later part of the Farm Security Administration) to document the plight of migrant agricultural workers. Her image of Owens soon was published in newspapers, prompting the government to deliver food aid to the Nipomo camp, where several thousand people were hungry and living in squalid conditions; however, by that point Owens and her family had moved on.

Lange’s photo became a defining image of the Great Depression, but the migrant mother’s identity remained a mystery to the public for decades because Lange hadn’t asked her name. In the late 1970s, a reporter tracked down Owens (whose last name was then Thompson), at her Modesto, California, home. Thompson was critical of Lange, who died in 1965, stating she felt exploited by the photo and wished it hadn’t been taken and also expressing regret she hadn’t made any money from it. Thompson died at age 80 in 1983. In 1998, a print of the image, signed by Lange, sold for $244,500 at auction.

2. “Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima,” 1945, Mt. Suribachi

iwo jima

Credit: Joe Rosenthal

On February 23, 1945, Associated Press photographer Joe Rosenthal shot this photo of five Marines and one Navy corpsman raising a U.S. flag on Mt. Suribachi, the highest point on the Japanese island of Iwo Jima. The battle, one of the bloodiest in Marine Corps history, began on February 19, 1945, when the Americans invaded the heavily fortified island; four days later, they seized it and planted a small flag atop Mt. Suribachi. However, later that same day, the flag was ordered replaced with a much larger one that could be seen by troops across the island and on ships offshore. Rosenthal’s photo shows this second raising of the Stars and Stripes. The combat photographer subsequently was accused of staging the dramatic picture, but he denied the charge and eyewitnesses backed him up. The widely reproduced photo became a powerful patriotic symbol and went on to win a Pulitzer Prize and serve as the model for the Marine Corps War Memorial near Arlington National Cemetery.

Three of the Marines in the photo were killed in action on Iwo Jima (the battle didn’t officially end until March 26, 1945), while the three surviving flag-raisers were sent back to the U.S., where they were treated as heroes and appeared at rallies across the country to promote the sale of war bonds.

3. V-J Day celebration, 1945, New York City

vj day

Alfred Eisenstaedt's photo on display (Credit: GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

Famed photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt snapped this image of a sailor planting a celebratory kiss on a white-clad woman in the middle of New York City’s Times Square on August 14, 1945, when it was announced Japan had surrendered to the Allies, effectively ending World War II and his photo was published in “Life” magazine on August 27. Navy lens man Victor Jorgensen also happened to get a shot of the impromptu kiss, from a different (and less famous) angle. Neither photographer got a chance to ask the smooching pair their names (as Eisenstaedt later said of that day: “There were thousands of people milling around…everybody was kissing each other”), and in the years that followed, a number of men and several women came forward to claim they were the ones in the photos, which became symbolic of the excitement felt at the end of the war. A 2012 book, “The Kissing Sailor,” identified the couple as sailor George Mendonsa and Greta Zimmer, a dental assistant who didn’t know Mendonsa at the time of his spontaneous smooch. However, other people have made credible claims that they were the lip-locked couple, and to date, the pair’s identity never has been definitively proven.

4. Albert Einstein, 1951, New Jersey

albert einstein

Credit: Arthur Sasse/AFP/Getty Images

On March 14, 1951, lens man Arthur Sasse captured this image of Einstein leaving a 72nd birthday celebration held in his honor in Princeton, New Jersey. At the time the photo was taken, Sasse had been attempting to get the Nobel Prize-winning physicist to smile, but instead he stuck out his tongue as he sat in the back seat of a car. As it turned out, Einstein liked the shot so much he had some prints made for himself.

The German-born Einstein, who became a U.S. citizen in 1940, died four years after Sasse snapped his famous photo. In 2009, an original print signed by the renowned scientist sold at auction for more than $74,000. In 1953, in the midst of Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist crusade, Einstein had given the print to outspoken journalist Howard K. Smith, with the inscription (translated from German): “This gesture you will like, because it is aimed at all of humanity. A civilian can afford to do what no diplomat would dare. Your loyal and grateful listener, A. Einstein.” Einstein spoke out against McCarthyism, and historians have said the gesture in the photo and its inscription represent his spirit of non-conformity.

5. Che Guevara, 1960, Cuba

che guevara

Credit: Alberto Korda

On March 5, 1960, Cuban fashion photographer turned photojournalist Alberto Korda took this image of the 31-year-old Marxist revolutionary at a memorial service in Havana for victims of a munitions ship, La Coubre, which had exploded in the city’s harbor the previous day. Fidel Castro quickly blamed the U.S. for the blast, which killed at least 75 people and injured several hundred others, although the exact cause never was determined. After the La Coubre memorial service, the newspaper Korda worked for, “Revolucion,” ran pictures of Castro and other dignitaries and rejected the photo of Guevara. The picture appeared in various publications in Cuba and Europe in the ensuing years but drew little notice. In 1967, Giangiacomo Feltrinelli, a left-wing Italian publisher who was interested in Guevara, learned about the photo while on a visit to Cuba and was given a free copy by Korda. After the Argentine-born Guevara was captured and killed by soldiers in Bolivia later that same year, Feltrinelli distributed posters using Korda’s photo, dubbed “Guerrillero Heroico” (Heroic Guerilla), and the image soon spread around the world, becoming a symbol of revolution and youthful rebellion. It has since become one of the most widely reproduced images in history, showing up on everything from murals to beer bottles.

6. Lyndon Johnson, 1963, Air Force One

lbj oath

Credit: Cecil Stoughton

Two hours after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, Vice President Lyndon Johnson was sworn in as the nation’s 36th president aboard Air Force One at Dallas’ Love Field. Cecil Stoughton, a former Army photographer who had served as the official White House photographer since 1961 (the first person to hold the post), took the historic photo of Judge Sarah Hughes administering the oath of office to a solemn Johnson, flanked by his wife, a group of staffers and a stunned-looking Jaqueline Kennedy, still clad in the pink Chanel suit she was wearing when her husband was shot.

At the time of Kennedy’s assassination, Stoughton was riding several cars behind the president as part of his motorcade. Afterward, Stoughton went to Parkland Hospital, where Kennedy died, then raced to Love Field for Johnson’s swearing-in. Stoughton was the only photographer on the plane when Johnson was inaugurated and initially, when his camera malfunctioned, it appeared there wouldn’t be any photographic record. However, he quickly fixed the problem and was able to document the event. In a chaotic time for America, Stoughton’s photograph demonstrated the country still had continuity of government.

7. Richard Nixon & Elvis Presley, 1970, White House

elvis and nixonOn December 21, 1970, the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll secretly met with the nation’s 37th president in the Oval Office, an event documented by White House photographer Ollie Atkins. The meeting came about after Presley showed up unannounced at the White House gates earlier that morning and dropped off a hand-written letter of introduction for the president stating he wanted to be of service to the country and suggesting he be made a “Federal Agent-at-Large” to help fight America’s war on drugs. After the letter found its way into the hands of a Nixon aide, Presley was ushered in to meet the president that afternoon.

During the get-together, the entertainer reiterated his wish to be helpful to the president, shared his belief that the Beatles promoted anti-Americanism and said he’d been studying Communist brainwashing and the drug culture. Presley, who collected guns and police badges, then asked Nixon if he could get him a federal narcotics agent badge, a request that was granted later that day. Also at Presley’s request, his confab with the commander-in-chief was kept under wraps and the media didn’t learn about it until the following year. In 1977, the music legend, who never ended up working with the White House, died of heart failure, suspected to have been related to his abuse of prescription drugs.

8. “The Situation Room,” 2011, White House

situation room

Credit: Pete Souza

Taken on the afternoon of May 1, 2011, this image shows President Barack Obama and his national security team receiving updates about the top-secret Navy SEAL raid on the Pakistani compound of one of the most-wanted men in U.S. history, al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. At 11:35 ET that night, the president appeared on live TV to announce that the mastermind behind the 9/11 terrorist attacks had been killed by the SEALs.

White House photographer Pete Souza snapped the photo after Obama and his senior aides had crowded into a small conference room in the West Wing’s Situation Room complex, where Brigadier General Marshall “Brad” Webb was monitoring the mission. When Obama entered the room, Webb offered the president his chair. However, as Obama told NBC News, “ I said, ‘You don’t worry about it. You just focus on what you’re doing. I’m sure we can find a chair and I’ll sit right next to him.’ And that’s how I ended up [on a] folding chair.” Obama later referred to the high-stakes raid, during which a SEAL helicopter crash-landed at bin Laden’s hideout, as the longest 40 minutes of his life, while Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said she’d been concentrating so intensely while monitoring the raid that she hadn’t been aware the White House photographer was taking pictures.

Categories: Albert Einstein, Barack Obama, Che Guevara, Elvis Presley, Great Depression, Kennedy Assassination, Lyndon B. Johnson, Photography, Richard Nixon, World War II