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10 Iconic Photographs of Men Who Changed History

If a picture says a thousand words, a great picture says a million. Whether taken at the perfect time in terms framing and arrangement or snapped at the perfect time in terms of historical context, a great picture can capture the entire essence of a person’s life, revealing much about its subject in a single image. Today, we’re looking at 10 famous photographs of men whose fame came for vastly differing reasons. What they share in common is a moment captured on film that embodies their spirit.

From a president to a ballplayer to a pair of mountaineers to a preacher, these are men whose names the world will never forget. As for the image you see in your mind when you hear one of these names, it will likely be the photographs collected here.

Norgay and Hillary Summit Mt. Everest

Everest Edmund Hillary Tenzing Norgay
1953 Jamling Tenzing Norgay

On May 29, 1953, Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay summited Mount Everest. They were the first men to reach the top of the world’s tallest mountain, which stands at just over 29,000 feet. The exhausted climbers lingered atop the peak for only a few minutes, during which time they snapped a few pictures. It was after a partial descent and a bit of rest that arguably the most famous photograph in the history of mountaineering was taken, capturing the fellow climbers beaming with pride.

Gandhi at Work

mahatma gandhi
1942 Kanu Gandhi

When Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, better known as Mahatma Gandhi, launched the Quit India movement in 1942, he was 72 years old and already a world-renowned activist, celebrated for his nonviolent approach to political protest. This famous photograph captures his tranquil humility as he sits in the lotus position, shirtless and shoeless, working on a document. But note the determined look on his face; he would continue his work advocating for Great Britain to relinquish rule over India for five more years, until in 1947, the Brits did just that, albeit also with a partition of Pakistan. Less than six years later, Gandhi would be assassinated.

JFK Looks to the Future

president john f kennedy
1961 Image used with permission by copyright holder

John Fitzgerald Kennedy, 35th President of the United States of America, was one of the most photographed men of his era. But few, if any, photos captured the spirit of this man better than this simple image. In the frame, Kennedy looks up past the lens, as if looking ahead to the future. His face is calm with a hint of a smile, his eyes clear and firm. Taken in 1961, the photograph captures JFK at the height of his potential, sadly, less than three years before his death.

Buzz Aldrin on the Moon

buzz aldrin moon
1969 NASA

While Neil Armstrong will forever have the honor of being the first human being to set foot on the moon, Buzz Aldrin has the honor of having the best photograph taken during that historic day back in 1969. (And besides, he was on the lunar surface right after Armstrong, and we think that’s pretty good, too.) In this famous photo of Aldrin, Armstrong does make an appearance, though; you can clearly see the astronaut reflected in the mask of Aldrin’s space suit.

Abraham Lincoln’s Resolute Gaze

president abraham lincoln
1863 Alexander Gardner

America’s 16th president did not have an easy life. From the personal tragedy of the death of a son to the national strife of the Civil War to his own grievous end at the hands of an assassin, his years were beset by sadness and pain. Yet, he is often considered the greatest president; through it all, he was a stalwart advocate for the American people, always putting his own struggles aside to lead the nation through its own harrowing times. This image shows Lincoln’s careworn face, yet on that face, we see the strength and conviction that help guide the country through its darkest years.

Babe Ruth’s 60th Home Run of the Season

babe ruth home run
1927 Bettmann/Getty Images

On September 30, 1927, Babe Ruth hit a home run that would cement his place in the record books forever. It was his 60th homer of the season, and it set a record that would not be broken for 34 years. For some added context, the previous single-season record was 59 runs. It was also held by Ruth. Before that, the records were 54 and 29 runs, also both held by Ruth. Before he began smashing single-season home run stats, the most another player had ever achieved was 27 home run hits by Ned Williamson back in 1884. So when people call Ruth the best slugger of all time, it’s a title he deserves, no asterisks involved.

Barack Obama Walks to His Inauguration

barack obama michelle obama inaugurationn
2009 Pool/Getty Images

Much was historic about the January 2009 day on which Barack Obama became the 44th President of the United States. Obama would bring to the office a feel both poised and tranquil. He was every bit the gentleman, with his qualities soon on display in his outreach to other nations and his work on behalf of all people living within his own country. And it was on clear display on the day of his inauguration, when he shared every moment with his wife, beaming with genuine joy and much-deserved pride.

Muhammad Ali Knocks Out Sonny Liston

muhammad ali sonny liston
1965 Image used with permission by copyright holder

Muhammad Ali is considered by many to be the greatest boxer who ever lived. He was the youngest prizefighter to take the title of Heavyweight Champion away from a reigning champ, an achievement he pulled off at age 22, beating Sonny Liston in six rounds. However, arguably the most famous photo of Ali was taken during Ali and Liston’s next fight, which took place on May 25, 1965. In the image, the young boxer stands triumphant over the fallen Liston, seeming almost to taunt his foe into getting back up for another round of punishment.

MLK Waves During the March on Washington

martin luther king jr march on washington
1963 Agence France Presse / Getty Images

On August 28th, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. gave one of the most famous speeches in the pantheon of all oratory. Known as the “I Have a Dream” speech, in crisp, powerful language, the preacher turned activists laid out a vision for a better America, a land where all men, women, and children were truly equal, and therefore truly free. In this iconic image, a calm, collected King raises a hand to wave to the tens of thousands of supporters who had joined him to march right to the heart of the capital of the United States so that their collective message would be heard.

Albert Einstein Clowns Around

albert einstein tongue
1951 Bettmann/Getty Images

Albert Einstein was one of the most brilliant men who ever lived, and his contributions to various scientific fields changed the way we think about the universe itself. But he was also a flesh and blood human being who had a pretty solid sense of humor, as evidenced by this 1951 photograph, taken on his 72nd birthday. He would live for another four years, dying at age 76 and leaving behind a legacy of achievement in physics unlikely to ever be matched.

Steven John
Steven John is a writer and journalist living just outside New York City, by way of 12 years in Los Angeles, by way of…
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