The Actual Stories Behind Famous Historical Photos

Voting Rules
Vote 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. 

  • 1969: Margaret Hamilton Next To The Navigation Software She And Her Team At MIT Wrote For The Apollo Program
    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.

    1,488 votes
  • 2
    2,254 VOTES

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

    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.

    2,254 votes
  • 3
    1,542 VOTES

    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."

    1,542 votes
  • 4
    1,872 VOTES

    1932: 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper' 

    1932: 'Lunch Atop a Skyscraper' 
    Photo: Unknown author; maybe Charles Clyde Ebbets / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    The image of 11 men sitting on a beam high above New York City - not for the faint of heart if heights are a problem - captures hard work, ingenuity, and progress during the early 1930s. To take such a picture, the photographer must have been sitting at a similar vantage point - but the details of that remain unclear.

    What is known, however, is that the beam in question is part of Rockefeller Center, the men are immigrants, and the height is estimated at about 850 feet.

    The picture of the men eating, smoking, laughing, and dangling their legs was featured in the October 2 edition of The New York Herald-Tribune. It's been attributed to Charles Clyde Ebbets, Thomas Kelley, William Leftwich, and Lewis Hine. 

    Just like the photographer itself, the names of the men have been unknown for decades. This changed during the early 2010s. After discovering a similar picture in a pub in Galway, Ireland, Seán Ó Cualáin and his brother, Eamonn, saw a note attached. It read: "This is my dad on the far right and my uncle-in-law on the far left."

    They contacted the note-writer, Pat Glynn, immediately. When compared to the photo, Glynn family pictures indicate that Sonny Glynn (far right) and Matty O'Shaughnessy (far left) are both in the image.

    1,872 votes
  • 1906: 'San Francisco Earthquake and Fire' By Arnold Genthe
    Photo: Arnold Genthe / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    German American photographer Arnold Genthe captured the negative effects of the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, CA, within hours of it happening. To take one of his most famous photos, Genthe looked down Sacramento Street as one of the numerous fires raged in the city.

    The earthquake hit at 5:13 am. For the next three or four days, San Francisco burned, with roughly 500 city blocks wiped out. The death toll from the earthquake and fires is estimated at about 3,000, with an additional 400,000 individuals left homeless.

    Genthe, whose own studio was wiped out, borrowed a camera and traversed the city to document the ruins. Genthe later said of the Sacramento Street photo that it "shows, in a pictorially effective composition, the results of the earthquake, the beginning of the fire and the attitude of the people." He continued:

    On the right is a house, the front of which had collapsed into the street. The occupants are sitting on chairs calmly watching the approach of the fire. Groups of people are standing in the street, motionless, gazing at the clouds of smoke. When the fire crept up close, they would just move up the block. It is hard to believe that such a scene actually occurred in the way the photograph represents it.

    889 votes
  • 6
    1,021 VOTES

    1895: Train Wreck At Monteparnasse

    1895: Train Wreck At Monteparnasse
    Photo: Levy & fils / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain

    When the train that ran between Paris and Granville arrived at Montparnasse station on October 22, 1895, its speed was somewhere between 25 and 37 miles per hour. The high rate of speed - a choice by the conductor in the hopes of making up time - and insufficient brakes sent the locomotive through buffers on the track and, ultimately, the station itself.

    Of the 131 passengers aboard the train, only four or five were injured. One person on the street was killed, newspaper vendor Marie-Augustine Aguilard, wife of the newsstand owner. She was unable to escape damage caused by the train falling 30 feet from above.  

    Spectators visiting the site took pictures to capture the surreal scene for posterity. There are numerous photos of the incident, many of which are attributed to one or more photographers. The picture held by the Musee d'Orsay in Paris is believed to be taken by L. Mercier.

    After an investigation, the train's driver, Guillaume-Marie Pellerin, was determined to be at fault and fined. The conductor, Albert Mariette, was in the back of the train doing paperwork at the time of the incident.

    1,021 votes