• Weird History

The Actual Stories Behind Famous Historical Photos

List RulesVote up the pictures that need the proverbial thousand words to tell their story.

Every picture has a story behind it. Sometimes the stories behind famous photos are well known; other times they're lost to history. The photograph itself might even be the only thing that remains to tell viewers about something in the past.

Some of the most influential and important photographs in history attest to human ingenuity, social change, or political revolution. They depict cultural icons and historical events that are familiar to viewers. Then again, famous photos can also be shrouded in mystery, intriguing and familiar, but still full of more questions than answers.

Vote up the historical photos that, in the end, need at least the proverbial thousand words to tell their story. 

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    1936: One Man's Refusal To Take Part In A Salute

    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The defiant man who refused to salute while surrounded by Nazi loyalists, seen here in a 1936 photo, might be one of two people: August Landmesser or Gustav Wegert. Whoever the man is, he was present at the launch of a Horst Wessel, or naval training ship, on June 13.

    If the man is Landmesser, his refusal to salute could indicate his personal circumstances and SS ideology. Landmesser joined the party in 1931, hoping it would help him find a job, but wanted to marry a Jewish woman, Irma Eckler, in 1935.

    Race laws at the time prevented the nuptials, but Eckler and Landmesser continued their relationship. They had two daughters, Ingrid and Irene, and tried to flee Germany in 1938. Eckler was likely detained and sent to a concentration camp where she later perished. Landmesser was imprisoned and sent to fight on behalf of Germany. It's believed he died on the battlefield in Yugoslavia.

    If the individual in the picture is Gustav Wegert, his life has some similarities Landmesser's. According to the Wegert family, Gustav was a metalworker at the Blohm & Voss shipbuilding factory in Hamburg, Germany. He, too, attended the launch of the Horst Wessel, but at no time in his life saluted the Third Reich. 

    In the aftermath of not saluting in 1936, Wegert's wife expected her husband to be detained, but it never came about. Rather, Wegert was protected by his boss, who insisted Wegert was essential to production at the Blohm & Voss factory.

    Unlike Landmesser, however, Wegert avoided imprisonment and was never forced to fight for Germany. Gustav Wegert passed in 1959.

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  • Photo: Draper Laboratory; restored by Adam Cuerden / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    Former schoolteacher Margaret Hamilton took a job as a software programmer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology during the late 1950s. Initially tasked with working on meteorological and defense-system software, Hamilton transitioned to aeronautical technology at the Instrumentation Laboratory at MIT (later called the Charles Stark Draper Laboratory) during the mid-1960s.

    In 1965, Hamilton was appointed head of the team that would write and test software for the two computers on NASA's Apollo 11 mission - the Columbia (on the command module) and the Eagle (on the lunar module). With roughly 100 fellow software engineers, Hamilton incorporated protections into the software to prevent previous mistakes.

    When a staff photographer took the picture of Hamilton with volumes of software information in 1969, it not only highlighted the pioneering technological achievement, but also emphasized the role of women in the process. Hamilton commented in 2019:

    Programming was never considered to be women’s work, at least not in any of the many projects I have been involved with. Human computers [who did calculations by hand] were mostly all women and there were women who used calculating machines... but they weren’t programmers... Then within a couple of years there would be a few - and I did have some working for me - but not many. There were always many more men.

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    1972: 'The Hasanlu Lovers,' Depicting Skeletons From An Iranian Archaeology Site

    The skeletons of two people who appear to be embracing each other, one with its hand on the other's face, were excavated in 1972 at the Hasanlu archaeological site in northwestern Iran. They were found in a mud, brick and stone bin with no objects other than a stone slab beneath one individual's head. Scientists do know that Hasanlu was destroyed by a terrible fire around 800 BCE, possibly from invaders, but they don't know a lot about the people who lived there at the time. The intertwined individuals might have taken refuge from the fire in the bin.

    Experts have long speculated about the sex of and relationship between what are called the "Hasanlu Lovers," which were on display at the the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (AKA the Penn Museum) in the 1970s and '80s. Based on a skeletal examination, especially of each individual’s pelvis, it appears that both are male, but the one on the left also has some female characteristics. A DNA analysis found that they were both male. The skeleton on the left appears to be older, around 30 to 35 years old; the one on the right is about 19 to 22 years old.

    Although they are described as "lovers," it's also possible they are a father and son (or other family members), friends, or strangers.

    In a video about the Hasanlu Lovers, anthropologist Page Selinsky of the University of Pennsylvania says that "in terms of something that is emotionally evocative, it was about as good as it gets in archaeology."

     

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    1936: Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother'

    Photographer Dorothea Lange chronicled the Great Depression while working with the Farm Security Administration. Lange, an agent of the New Deal, was tasked with bringing the plight of America's rural poor to light.

    Her picture of Florence Owens Thompson, known as Migrant Mother, was one of seven images Lange took of the 32-year-old woman in Nipomo, CA. Thompson and her seven children lived at a pea-picking camp where, according to Lange, they were surviving on "frozen vegetables from the surrounding field and birds" felled by the children.

    Overall, Lange's work - especially Migrant Mother - captures the struggle and strength of individuals living through the Depression. Thompson's expression highlights the concern she felt; the turned heads of the children reveal their dependence on their mother; and the dirty and frayed garments indicate multifaceted levels of despair. 

    Paul Taylor, Lange's husband, marveled at how Lange would "saunter up to the people and look around, and then when she saw something that she wanted to photograph, to quietly take her camera, look at it, and if she saw that they objected, why, she would close it up and not take a photograph, or perhaps she would wait until... they were used to her."

    One of the Thompson children, Katherine, later recalled Lange telling her mother that the picture would help others and that their names would not be used. When the picture was published in the newspaper, however, Katherine was "ashamed of it. We didn't want no one to know who we were."

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