Every picture tells a story…but not always the full story.
Some of the most important photos in history seem to tell a pretty clear tale, but when we decided to dive into the stories behind them, we found some pretty surprising information.
Even if you’re a photography buff, we’d bet that some of these backstories will blow you away. For instance…
1. Joe Rosenthal’s Iwo Jima photo wasn’t of the first flag raising.
Taken on Feb. 23, 1945, this photo symbolizes the end of the World War II to most Americans. It shows soldiers battling to hoist a victory flag over Iwo Jima, and photographer Joe Rosenthal was lucky enough to capture the moment on film.
Well, “lucky” is a bit misleading, considering that this was the second Iwo Jima flag. Another photographer captured the first photo at the top of a hill, then told Rosenthal to head up to the same vantage point, since it was an ideal location for taking photos.
Contrary to what you might have heard online, however, the photo wasn’t staged. That rumor started when a reporter asked one of the Marines in the photo whether he’d posed for a pic; thinking that the reporter was referring to a different photograph, the Marine said that he had.
2. The Black Power Olympic moment was well documented, but Australian Peter Norman’s story was almost equally compelling.
John Carlos and Tommie Smith made history when they raised their fists at the 1968 Olympics, clearly showing their allegiance with the black pride movement and inciting the anger of the American status quo. It was a tremendous act of courage on the part of both athletes, but the other guy in the picture also contributed.
The lone white figure was Australian athlete Peter Norman. He’d won the silver in the 200-meter event, and when he stepped onto his pedestal, he was wearing a Olympic Project for Human Rights badge, a show of solidarity with his fellow athletes. He knew what Carlos and Smith were planning and told them that he’d stand with them.
When Norman returned home to Australia, he was treated as an outcast, and Carlos remarked that while he and Smith faced discrimination for their act, Norman deserved recognition for facing an entire country on his own. Norman died of heart failure in 2006, and Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral.
3. Those guys eating lunch on the skyscraper didn’t do that regularly.
Lunch Atop a Skyscraper is a classic symbol of American resilience during the Great Depression, and it’s also a terrifying photo for anyone with a fear of heights. It’s also pretty phony.
The photo was part of a publicity campaign arranged by Rockefeller Center. Although the men were probably real workers, there’s no reason to believe that it’s a candid shot; another photo shows them all apparently napping on the same steel beam, so this was almost certainly a staged photo session.
Even the identity of the photographer is in question. Although Charles C. Ebbets is commonly credited as the photographer, recently uncovered info suggests that there were several photographers at the shoot. Nobody knows the names of the construction workers, either, although they were likely Irish immigrants.
So, were they at least that high up in the air? Apparently so; they didn’t exactly have Photoshop in 1932, and while image manipulation was possible, experts believe that the photo is legit.
4. August Landmesser refused to salute Adolf Hitler.
But sadly, his defiance made life incredibly difficult for him.
Landmesser had attempted to marry a Jewish woman named Irma Eckler, but the Nazi Party refused to recognize their marriage. As a result, he was drafted into “perennial military service.” He continued his relationship with Eckler, fathering two children, but she was sent to a concentration camp and he was imprisoned for violating the racial purity edicts of the Nazi party.
In June of 1936, he was photographed at a Nazi rally—and, of course, in an incredible act of courage, he decided to forego the traditional salute.
This is one story that doesn’t have a happy ending. Landmesser was drafted into service during World War II and killed in action. His wife died in a concentration camp. Still, he’ll always be known for defiance in the face of tyranny, and one of his daughters wrote an extensive family history to tell his story.
5. Alfred Eisenstaedt’s photo of a sailor caused some strange controversy.
Titled V-J Day in Times Square, this photograph shows a sailor returning from war, apparently grabbing a random nurse and expressing his joy with a passionate kiss. It immediately became emblematic, and many started asking who the people in the photo were.
That mystery seemed to be answered in 1970, when Edith Shain claimed to be the woman in the photo. She was working as a nurse at the time, and she said that a sailor simply grabbed her and kissed her. Years later, she realized that the moment had become a part of history.
Except that she wasn’t in the picture. Experts said that she was far too short to be the woman in the photo, and they support the claim of another woman, Greta Friedman.
So, what was Friedman’s memory of the event?
It wasn’t that much of a kiss, Friedman said in 2005. “It was just somebody celebrating. It wasn’t a romantic event.”
Well, that’s something of a disappointment.
6. Albert Einstein’s “tongue-out” photo was one of his favorites.
Every science teacher seems to have a copy of this famous photo. It shows the father of relativity sticking out his tongue in an unexpected moment of goofiness. Is it real, or just the creation of some imaginative guy working at a poster company?
It’s real, alright, but the context makes it even better. Photographer Arthur Sasse was taking pictures of Albert Einstein on the scientist’s 72nd birthday. Sasse tried to get Einstein to smile for the camera, but Einstein wanted to switch it up, as he’d been smiling for photographs all day. He stuck out his tongue, and a legendary photograph was born.
Einstein loved the picture and requested nine copies for personal use. He signed one of them for a reporter, and decades later, it sold at auction for $74,324. In the inscription, Einstein said that his gesture in the photo was intended for all humankind.
7. This “Migrant Mother” later claimed that the photographer was a liar.
Migrant Mother is probably the most famous image from the Great Depression. Photographer Dorothea Lange claimed that its subject, Florence Owens Thompson, was pictured shortly after she’d sold her family’s tires in order to buy food.
Thompson, however, disputes that claim, noting that the family didn’t even have any tires to sell. She’d later say that Lange had gotten most of the details wrong, and what’s worse, Thompson’s family didn’t benefit from the widespread fame of the picture.
I wish she hadn’t taken my picture, Thompson later said of Lange. “I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.”
It’s worth noting that since Lange was working for the federal government when she snapped the shot, she never made any money from Migrant Mother, either. Still, we understand why Thompson was angry about becoming famous for what she considered a total falsification.
8. That Che Guevara photograph was an afterthought.
If you went to college, chances are that your annoying roommate had a Che Guevara t-shirt during his Communist phase (when he refused to pay rent and claimed he was “seizing the means of production”).
That’s one of the most iconic photos ever taken, but it wasn’t popularized until after the famous guerrilla died. Photographer Alberto Korda had captured the image while photographing Fidel Castro, but it became the photo of choice when Guevara became a martyr for the Cuban Communist movement.
As a friend of Castro and Guevara, Korda was devoted to the principles of the movement and opposed the commercial use of his work. He never earned any money from the photograph, but he did sue when a Western company attempted to use the image in advertisements. The case was settled out of court for $50,000 USD, which Korda donated to the Cuban healthcare system.