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Exploring US History Through 10 Famous Photographs

Photography offers a unique gateway to delve into historical events. Besides, countries like the United States have played a non-trivial role in shaping global development. 

For instance, Bliss (an image featuring a serene green hill and a blue sky with white clouds) taken in California became the iconic Windows XP wallpaper. It’s considered the most-seen photo in history, heralding an era of computer technology development.

This article presents ten iconic photos that portray the history of the USA. Take a closer look at these images to discover the true power of photography. You’ll also learn what key elements in photography to focus on to ensure you create high-quality, impactful visuals. Keep on reading! 

World-Famous Photos That Reveal The History of The USA

The United States became a nation relatively recently, in 1776. Nonetheless, the country contributed to the victory over Nazi Germany, advancements in democracy, and scientific discoveries. The photography below clearly demonstrates this. 

 #1 Kissing the War Goodbye 

Kissing the war goodbye

This popular photograph was most likely captured by American Navy photojournalist Victor Jorgensen on August 14, 1945. It depicts a sailor kissing a young woman in the heart of New York.

On this day, a crowd of 750,000 people gathered in Times Square to celebrate the Victory over Japan (V-J Day) during World War II. At 7:03 p.m., the ticker finally said, “Official: Truman announces Japanese surrender.”

Although the official end day of World War II is celebrated on September 2, it was on August 14 that Japan accepted the Potsdam Declaration from the governments of the United States, United Kingdom, and China outlining the terms of its surrender.

#2 Lunch atop a Skyscraper

Lunch atop a skyscraper

This black-and-white picture of people was captured in 1932 by an unknown photographer and depicts 11 ordinary workers having lunch on the GE Building beam during its construction. The events are taking place at a height of over 200 meters.

The dining workers appear serene, considering that during those years, America was suffering from the Great Depression, a global economic crisis that lasted from 1929 to 1939. As a result, 12 million Americans lost their jobs, prices were unbearable, and cities almost stopped their development.

Lunch atop a Skyscraper became a symbol of hope during the Great Depression because, despite the widespread unemployment, these 11 fearless workers were eating sandwiches and attempting to build a new world.

#3 Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima

Raising the flag on Iwo Jima

This all-time best picture was taken by an American photographer, Joe Rosenthal, on February 23, 1945. In the image, six US servicemen are raising their national flag atop Mount Suribachi in Japan. The momentous event took place during the Battle of Iwo Jima.

When the Southeast Asian front was opened during World War II, Japan established an airstrip base with numerous troops on Iwo Jima. As the US broke through Japanese defenses, they captured the Mariana Islands to launch air raids on the Japanese archipelago. The military base on Iwo Jima obstructed their plans, causing a battle that lasted from February 18 to March 26, 1945.

The moment when the Marines raised the flag on Mount Suribachi became iconic for America, and the photograph itself is the most recognizable image of the war. It received the Pulitzer Prize in 1945.

#4 The Migrant Mother

The migrant mother

This world-famous photo, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, depicts a destitute mother forced to leave her farm and seek employment during the Great Depression.

Dorothea Lange was one of the most influential female photographers of the XX century. She worked across various corners of America to showcase the profound depth of human suffering, impacting social reforms in the country. During the Great Depression, Lange documented street demonstrations and the unemployed on the streets of San Francisco.

However, it was the “Migrant Mother” photograph that shed light on the stark reality of hunger, poverty, and hopelessness during those challenging times.

#5 “I Have a Dream” Speech

I have a dream speech

In this best-world photo, Martin Luther King Jr. is depicted delivering a speech during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963. Around 300,000 people walked to the Lincoln Memorial on that day, where King delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. The demonstration aimed to advocate for equal rights for African Americans.

Even though African Americans had been freed from slavery and became citizens of the United States after the Civil War, many continued to face inequality. They were disenfranchised, attended “separate but equal” schools, and were relegated to designated seats on public transportation.

“We cannot be satisfied as long as the Negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their selfhood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: for whites only,” Martin Luther King Jr. declared during his speech. This led to authorities revisiting and revising civil and voting rights laws.

#6 Earthrise


This photograph is one of the most famous images of Earth taken from space. It was captured on December 24, 1968, by American astronaut William Anders from the Apollo 8 spacecraft. 

Much of the Moon doesn’t experience sunrises or sunsets, as the satellite’s one side always faces Earth. Nonetheless, due to a slight rocking motion known as libration, sunrises and sunsets occur on certain parts of the Moon approximately every 30.5 Earth days. This particular moment was captured by William Anders. 

#7 Leap into Freedom

Leap into freedom

This black-and-white picture was taken by German photographer Peter Leibing in the very early days of the Berlin Wall’s construction in 1961. It portrays a border guard named Hans Konrad Schumann, one of the first to defect from East to West Germany.

After the surrender of Nazi Germany in World War II, the country was divided among the participants of the Anti-Hitler Coalition, with the Eastern part falling under the control of the Soviet Union and the Southwestern part under America’s influence, leading to the establishment of the GDR and FRG.

The Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was a major factor behind the construction of the Berlin Wall. On March 5, 1946, Winston Churchill delivered his “Iron Curtain” speech, stating that the USA and UK must oppose the Communist bloc, which brought about conflict, division, and expansion.

This statement solidified the Truman Doctrine, guaranteeing support to non-Communist countries in exchange for hosting American military bases. In turn, the Berlin Wall became a symbol of this Cold War struggle between the US and the USSR. 

#8 Into the Jaws of Death

Into the jaws of death

This well-known photograph was taken by United States Coast Guard Chief Petty Officer Robert F. Sargent on June 6, 1944, during Operation Neptune. The image captures American soldiers disembarking from a landing craft.

Operation Neptune was a crucial component of the larger Normandy landings, which aimed to liberate northwestern France from German occupation. As a result, the combined forces of the United States, United Kingdom, Canada, and their allies crossed the Seine River, liberated Paris, and advanced toward the German border. The Normandy landings marked the closing of the Western Front and are considered the largest amphibious assault in history, involving over 3 million personnel.

#9 Flower Power Demonstrator

Flower power demonstrator

The photo was taken on October 21, 1967. The March on the Pentagon took place on this day, a protest against the Vietnam War. Simultaneously, the Summer of Love was concluding in San Francisco, where one hundred thousand hippies gathered to celebrate love and freedom.

During the March on the Pentagon, a column of demonstrators clashed with National Guardsmen. One of the female demonstrators extended a flower to a military police officer, and the phrase “flower power” became a slogan for proponents of nonviolent resistance.

#10 Buzz Aldrin on the Moon 

Buzz Aldrin on the moon

In 1969, an iconic photograph was taken by Neil Alden Armstrong, portraying Buzz Aldrin, an American engineer and lunar module pilot. The snapshot commemorates Aldrin’s role as one of the pioneering individuals to set foot on the Moon. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were integral members of the Apollo 11 space flight, with their central objective being the historic Moon landing.

Their lunar excursion lasted 2 hours, 31 minutes, and 40 seconds. This picture can be considered one of the most famous science photos. 

Key Elements in Photos That Changed The World

Photography has the great power to influence social and political events. So, to capture meaningful shots, you must consider factors such as: 

  • Emotions. Photography can evoke powerful emotions, shaping public perception and driving action. Skillful photographers capture candid expressions and poignant moments to connect viewers with the subject’s feelings, fostering empathy and engagement.
  • Composition. The arrangement of elements within a photograph significantly impacts its visual appeal and message. Thoughtful composition guides the viewer’s eye, establishes hierarchy, and conveys meaning, ensuring the image effectively communicates its intended narrative.
  • Timing. Timing is crucial in photography, as it freezes fleeting moments that hold significance. By photographing the right moment, you can encapsulate authenticity, capturing actions, reactions, and events that define the essence of a scene.
  • Storytelling. Photographs tell stories by encapsulating moments, cultures, or issues. Effective storytelling employs visual elements to convey messages, whether it’s capturing a personal journey, highlighting social injustice, or chronicling a historical event.
  • Uniqueness. A unique perspective or approach sets a photograph apart and makes it memorable. Photographers who bring their own style, creative vision, or innovative techniques to their work create outstanding images that attract attention and leave a lasting impression.

When sharing your work online, you can add black and white photos quotes. Doing so gives you a better chance of influencing a viewer with textual and visual information. Captions for black-and-white pictures can also cover your narratives from another point of view. 

Final Thoughts 

History is not just about dates and political events; it delivers emotions, beliefs, and dreams that shape a nation. That’s why famous photographers strive to freeze these moments in time. Images described in this article immortalize moments that define America’s essence with its pursuit of freedom, democracy, and peace. 

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