Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History

For many photographers, there are certain images and photos that resonate with them, and some may have even given the inspiration to start in the world of photography. Looking at and learning about others’ photos is an essential part of learning. Learning about famous and iconic photos can gain a lot of valuable knowledge and techniques.

Here are 15 of the most iconic photos you need to see and appreciate. 

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History

What Makes an Iconic Photo?

What is an iconic photo? While most people will have a different definition or criteria for what makes an image iconic, they do have something in common. Most iconic photographs will either document an important event in history, trigger an emotional response, or provoke thoughts or insight into something.

An iconic image could even be all three. No matter how you define what makes a photograph iconic, there is no doubt that there are numerous images throughout our history that stand above the rest.

Iconic Photos and Most Recognizable Photos

Here are some of our top picks of the most iconic images from around the world. 

1. Muhammad Ali Knocks Out Sonny Liston, Neil Leifer (1965)

When it comes to sports photography, there is no photo as famous as this one. The photo shows the famous battle between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston during their second fight.

Ali beat Liston handily during their first fight, and many people believed it was a fluke. Leading up to their rematch, odd makers gave Liston 1-7 to win, believing that Liston was invincible. 

Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston
Neil Leifer 1965
©Neil Leife 1965

This image was captured during the rematch. Ali only threw around four punches, and the last one knocked Liston out within two minutes of the first round. Photographer Neil Leifer was one of only two photographers there using color film and was able to capture this iconic image.

2. View From The Window At Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1826)

This photograph isn’t famous or iconic because of how beautiful or interesting it is, it gets its fame by being the first-ever permanent photograph ever taken. This image is almost 200 years old. 

The image depicts exactly what the name implies and is very basic and simple. It was captured on a pewter plate with light-sensitive chemicals after many hours of exposure. 

View From The Window At Le Gras, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1826)
©Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1826)

Joseph Nicéphore Niépce became interested in the printing of lithography, and this curiosity led him to the ‘camera obscura’, which captured and projected illuminated scenes. He then used the natural light from his window to capture this groundbreaking image. 

3. Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, Charles C. Ebbets, Thomas Kelley or William Leftwich (1932)

If you have ever sat in a doctor’s office waiting room or had a calendar with random images, chances are that you have seen this photograph. It’s easy to see why this image is so famous, as it is super unique.

In the picture, you see a group of construction workers sitting and having lunch on a single steel beam, high above the New York City skyline. Many don’t know that the image was actually staged, and was used as a promotional stunt. 

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 1
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper 1932

Another unique thing about this image is that no one knows who really took the picture. Three photographers, Charles C. Ebbets, Thomas Kelley, and William Leftwich, were all present at the time.

4. Earthrise, William Anders (1968)

For many people, seeing our Earth photographed in the same way that we photograph our moon was a very strange but interesting sight. This picture was taken as the photographer and camera were en route on the first manned mission to orbit the moon.

This image was first captured in black and white until William Anders found a color film canister. It was taken using a Hasselblad camera.

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 2
©William Anders (1968)

This is one of the most famous photographs out there and gave new light and insight into our view of our planet and outer space. 

5. First Aerial Photograph, James Wallace (1860)

In recent years, drone photography has become super popular and grows bigger and bigger every single year. This technology is great and makes it so much easier than how it used to be achieved years ago. 

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Over 150 years ago, James Wallace took this photograph of Boston. This was only 34 years after Joseph Nicéphore Niépce had taken the first-ever permanent image. This photo is not quite that old, but it is the oldest aerial photograph ever taken.

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 3
James Wallace (1860)

James Wallace used a balloon to ascend 2,000 feet in the air before taking a photograph of the ground below. Today, you are not allowed to get images like these without special permission. 

6. Starving Child and Vulture, Kevin Carter (1993)

One of the more controversial images on this list, it won a Pulitzer Prize and is famous for its social impact and awareness raised. It shows a collapsed and starving child with a hungry vulture nearby. 

It was taken in 1993 in Sudan by photographer Kevin Carter. The image created a lot of controversies and criticism towards the photographer for taking the image instead of helping the child. 

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 4
©Kevin Carter (1993)

The travels and experiences, in addition to the criticism and onslaught he received, drove Kevin Carter to eventually take his own life in 1994. To this day, this image still remains famous for the haunting reality it depicts. 

7. Woman Falling From Fire Escape, Stanley Forman (1975)

Stanley Forman was a popular photographer that was working for the Boston Herald when he went to a fire. But what started as him taking photographs of a fire and the rescue of a woman and a child quickly took a turn for the worse. 

The rescued pair began falling when the fire escape they were on collapsed, and Forman took a series of photos as they were falling to the ground. He only stopped taking photographs at the last moment as he realized he was about to witness a woman falling to her death. 

9. Woman Falling From Fire Escape, Stanley Forman (1975)
©Stanley Forman (1975)

While the image won a Pulitzer Prize, it raised a lot of awareness on many ethical issues. It did also help to draw awareness and enforce stricter fire escape safety rules and codes. 

8. The First American Team Summited Mount Everest, Barry Bishop (1963)

Climbing Mount Everest is one of the most extreme challenges known to mankind. Climbing this giant mountain that sits in Nepal and China draws many, and unfortunately, many climbers die trying to accomplish it. 

In 1963, this would have been much harder than it is today, because of the lack of technology. This did not stop Barry Bishop and his team, who made an expedition and captured this photo. 

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 5
©Barry Bishop (1963)

He did end up losing all of his toes and the tip of a finger on the trip but ended up being the first American team to climb the summit of Everest. 

9. The Burning Monk, Malcolm Browne (1963)

In 1963, America was deeply involved in the Vietnam War. While many Americans probably couldn’t even find Vietnam on a map, nobody was turning a blind eye to it when this image was first published. 

This photograph depicts a monk named Thich Quang Duc setting himself on fire on a Saigon street. It was done in protest to the treatment of Buddhists by the government of President Ngo Dinh Diem.

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 6
©Malcolm Browne (1963)

Malcolm Browne got word that something was going to happen and managed to take a few photographs of the event. He won a Pulitzer Prize for this image, and it raised a lot of controversy and awareness here in the states. 

10. Falling Man, Richard Drew (2001)

Most of the widely published and seen photos from the attacks of 9/11 are of planes and towers, and understandably so. This photo shows a man’s desperate escape from the burning buildings.

Interestingly enough, this image was one of the only widely seen pictures of that day that shows someone dying. The photo was published in many newspapers following the attacks, but backlash caused it to be forced into temporary obscurity. 

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 7
©Richard Drew (2001)

Richard Drew is the photographer who took the image and had been working in the industry for over 40 years at the time. This is widely credited as his most famous image. 

11. Pillars Of Creation, Nasa  (1995)

23 years ago, images of space and planets were huge accomplishments and groundbreaking, and this image was one of them. By today’s standards, there is nothing spectacular about this image, but it was a giant leap forward in its day.

The space shuttle Atlantis brought the Hubble telescope into space way over budget and years later, but it finally got there in 1990 and captured this image.

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 8
Nasa (1995)

It shows the Eagle Nebula, which is 6500 light-years from Earth. The apparent smokestacks are of interstellar dust seen in the Serpens Cauda constellation. The Hubble used four separate cameras in order to be able to capture this iconic image. 

12. The Tetons and the Snake River, Ansel Adams (1942)

For landscape photographers, this is one of the most famous images from famous photographer Ansel Adams. Adams is largely considered the godfather of all things landscape photography. 

Adams is famous for shooting images of different National Parks across the country. This view of the Teton mountains and the Snake River is among these photographs. The hard part about all of these images is that the big camera, tripod, and film all had to be carried across long distances.

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 9
©Ansel Adams (1942)

Adams took this photo in 1942 while working for the Department of the Interior. They had commissioned him to photograph the National parks, Indian reservations, and popular landmarks. 

13. Dali Atomicus, Philippe Halsman (1948)

Photography is all about creativity, and this image is one of the most creative out there. This photograph is one of the most interesting and iconic images because it is strange and creative.

The scene has many elements, like a floating chair, a bucket of water, a jumping man, and a floating easel complete with painting. This shot was possible with the help of assistants, family members, and thin wires.

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 10
©Philippe Halsman (1948)

Philippe Halsman was then known as a photographer who thought outside the box, no matter how hard the work was. It took over 28 tries to get this shot just perfect. 

14. First Digital Image, Russell Kirsch (1957)

It might surprise people to learn that the first digital image was scanned way back in 1957. Especially when you consider that the first digital camera was made in 1975.

Russell Kirsch was an engineer who was part of a team that developed a digital image scanner, creating this image way before digital or lightroom photography was even an idea.

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 11
©Russell Kirsch (1957)

The resolution on this image is low because the computer he used couldn’t store any more data. It might not be one of the most popular images, but it is definitely one of the most iconic. 

15. V-J Day In Times Square, Alfred Eisenstaedt (1945)

There’s probably not a single person in the United States who hasn’t seen this image at some time in their life. It depicts a sailor and a nurse after the end of World War 2. 

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This image is a classic example of a photograph telling a story and how powerful black and white images can be. It is no wonder why it adorns so many public places, offices, and walls.

Top 15 Most Iconic Photos From the History 12
©Alfred Eisenstaedt (1945)

Shot in Times Square, this image is easily one of the most iconic and famous photos in history. It instantly became a symbol of freedom and continues to be one of the most referenced photographs of our time.

Iconic Photos From the History | Conclusion

These 15 photos are some of the most iconic photos in history. We chose them for their ability to tell a story and capture a moment in time. These images have the power to change the way we see the world and can be a source of inspiration for future generations.

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by Viktor Elizarov
I am a travel photographer and educator from Montreal, Canada, and a founder of PhotoTraces. I travel around the world and share my experiences here. Feel free to check my Travel Portfolio and download Free Lightroom Presets.