25 Photographs Every American Should Know

important photos for americans

There’s a lot to grumble about regarding the state and quality of education in this country right now, but there are some things that every American should know about its history. Beyond the Preamble and the first president, things like the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement and the weighty debate over issues in the modern military are also important parts of our culture that will help us to make responsible, beneficial changes for our future. And a good way to study American history — whether you’re in high school, getting a master’s degree or just want to review some of the country’s biggest moments — is by looking at old photographs. Here are 25 photographs every American should know.

    1. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima: This photograph is one of the most famous in American history and was taken on February 23, 1945, by Joe Rosenthal. Five U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman were given the responsibility to raise the flag a second time that day, after the first had been captured by the Japanese during the Battle of Iwo Jima. Three of the soldiers survived and became celebrities when they returned to the U.S., and influenced a song by Johnny Cash, a film by Clint Eastwood, and a sculpture at the Arlington National Cemetery. It’s also the only photograph to win a Pulitzer Prize for Photography in the same year as its initial publication.
    2. Elizabeth Eckford and Hazel Bryan: This photo depicts the African American student Elizabeth Eckford — known as one of The Little Rock Nine — as she heads to school after it has been integrated. Eckford missed a message to meet with the other black students so that they wouldn’t have to brave the angry crowd alone, and in the photo, you can see Eckford calmly — but troublesomely — walking past as the mob — especially a young Hazel Bryan — jeers and shouts at her.
    3. Kent State: One of the most iconic photographs of the Vietnam War era, the Kent State photo was taken by an undergraduate named John Filo. A completely distraught, helpless-looking Mary Vecchio weeps over the dead body of a classmate, who had been shot by National Guardsmen during a protest on campus. Her emotion captures the anger and violent confusion of the era, and the photo won Filo a Pulitzer.
    4. V-J Day, Times Square: This celebratory photograph can be found framed on dorm room walls, on calendars and seemingly everywhere else. Taken in 1945 after the announcement of victory in Japan during WWII, nurse Edith Shain was kissed by a stranger — a sailor with great form. When she was 90 years old, Shain told the New York Daily News that “she regretted never getting the dashing sailor’s number.” But besides the joke, this photograph shows the impulsive passion, relief and excitement after a nation pushed through war.
    5. Destitute peapickers in California: Dorothea Lange is one of the most important documenters of The Great Depression, and her photographs of migrant families and farm workers show the true desperation — and dignity — of a disoriented population. This photo in the Migrant Mother series was taken in February of 1936 and features a 32-year-old mother surrounded by her seven camera-shy children. Even though it’s in black and white, the photo is startlingly gripping and detailed, honoring every wrinkle, chapped lip, frayed clothing and tousled hair in the photograph.
    6. Ground Zero Spirit: In some ways reminiscent of the photo taken at Iwo Jima, Ground Zero Spirit shows three exhausted firefighters raising the American flag against a tangle of iron and debris at Ground Zero. Photographer Thomas E. Franklin took the photo on September 11, 2001, just after 5p.m., at the end of a workday that started with a devastating mass murder.
    7. Lunch Atop a Skyscraper: Another photograph that’s been reprinted on calendars, postcards and posters is Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, taken in 1932 by an unknown artist. In some ways comical, in others frightening, the photo shows the everyday lunchtime routine for a group of laboring men in early 20th century America.
    8. Firefighter Chris Fields, Oklahoma City bombing: This photo is probably most famous image from the Oklahoma City bombing, which happened on April 19, 1995. Firefighter Chris Fields cradles a dying infant named Baylee Almon, covered in blood and wearing only a pair of socks. It’s a pathetic, disheartening photo that was taken by two photographers at the same instant, Lester LaRue and Charles Porter.
    9. Coretta King at funeral for MLK, Jr.: Photographer Moneta J. Sleet Jr. won the 1969 Pulitzer Prize for Photography for this image of Coretta Scott King at her husband’s funeral. Wearing a black veil and looking stoic, Scott King holds her daughter who is slumped over her mother’s lap looking dazed. It’s said to be one of the most graceful images of the Civil Rights Movement.
    10. First Airplane Flight, 1903: This very early photo is part of a series of images showing Orville and Wilbur Wright testing out their airplane. It’s a stunning visual documentation of human’s first foray into flight.
    11. Phan Thi Kim Phuc: One of the most upsetting and iconic images in not just American history but world history, Nick Ut’s photograph shows young Vietnamese children running down a road after a napalm attack, screaming in pain as they try to make sense of their newly burned bodies. Phan Thi Kim PHuc is the little girl in the center of the photo, who was just nine years old at the time of the attack. Behind her and the other children are South Vietnamese soldiers, who were escorting the young group to safety at the time of the attack. It’s a heart-wrenching, guilt-inducing photo that shows the cruel, violent side of human nature. Ut — who took the children to a hospital after snapping the photo — won a Pulitzer Prize, and his picture was also chosen as the World Press Photo of the Year for 1972.

Young Miner

    1. Young Miner: Photographer Lewis H. Hine took many pictures of the children who were exploited during the early 20th century, before child labor laws protected them from the harshness of the country’s new obsession with industrialism. Young Miner was taken in 1908, featuring a young boy who gives a weak smile despite his apparent exhaustion, dirty face, and stooped stance.
    2. Bob Dylan, fans looking into Limousine: It’s not just that everyone should know who Bob Dylan is, but this photograph — taken by Barry Feinstein — also depicts America’s newfound obsession with fame and celebrity adoration. Fans are pressed against the glass window of Dylan’s car, and one young admirer even has his (or her) hands folded as if in prayer. Americans went crazy for Sinatra and Elvis, but during the 1960s, we took celebrity worship to a whole new level — and it’s been escalating ever since. Plus, it’s just a great shot of Dylan.
    3. Panorama of the Destroyed City: Still known as one of the most devastating natural disasters in American history, the 1906 earthquake is also responsible for new building codes and laws in San Francisco and all over the country. This is one of the most famous shots of the devastation: only three structures remain standing in the entire Financial District.
    4. Charles Lindbergh with the Spirit of St. Louis: Charles Lindbergh’s politics may have been controversial, but he also represented a cowboy-like spirit that still appeals to many Americans. This shot of the young pilot in front of The Spirit of St. Louis was taken in 1927.
    5. Tanisha Blevin and Nita LaGarde evacuating the convention center: There are so many moving, horrifying, empathetic photographs from Hurricane Katrina, which ravaged the Gulf Coast in 2005. It’s almost like rubber necking: it’s hard to believe that we let it get that bad in an American city. But this photo is considered one of the most defining and complex images of the whole mess. Five-year-old Nita LaGarde — who is black — holds the hand and grips the wheelchair of 89-year-old Nita LaGarde — who is white — as they are evacuated from the convention center in New Orleans. The neighbors survived on a roof with Blevin’s 60-year-old grandmother, only to then live on a bridge for two days, receiving food and water from looters. Both looking lost in the photo, they cling to each other.
    6. The Mill: The Mill is another one of Lewis Hine’s photographs depicting the cruel realities of child labor in the United States. An 11-year-old girl steals a break and looks longingly out the window, her back turned to the dangerous machines she must tend to during long working days.
    7. The Water is Rising: Another photo of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, this image shows the utter hopelessness and abandonment of the survivors who felt like they’d been left behind. Four young men stare up at a photographer — who most likely flew by on a helicopter — next to ragged blankets and a twisted American flag. “The Water is Rising Pleas” is spray painted next to them, but help hasn’t arrived.
    8. Swearing in of LBJ: There are countless photos documenting the assassination — the moments just before and just after — and funeral of JFK, but this one shows the shock, chaos and grief of the situation. Jackie Kennedy stands next to LBJ as he is sworn in as President of the United States aboard a very crowded Air Force One. Jackie’s fallen face is uncharacteristic of the normally poised First Lady, and LBJ’s serious, fatigued expression is in direct contrast to the inauguration ceremonies of most presidents.

Marilyn Monroe, the Seven Year Itch

  1. Marilyn Monroe, the Seven Year Itch: Marilyn Monroe wasn’t just a famous movie star: she — perhaps by accident — encouraged Americans to be more open about sex. She’s a revolutionary cultural icon, and this photograph from the set of The Seven Year Itch is the perfect example of her influence on entertainment and how we started to embrace sexuality.
  2. Standing on the Moon: Arguably one of the most important and most celebrated moments in American history is when Neil Amstrong stood on the moon. This photograph of Buzz Aldrin — the second man on the moon — looking directly at the camera through his astronaut suit and helmet compromises a lumbering, science fiction-like figure with the incredibly sophisticated technology that put him there, and that still baffles many of us today.
  3. Rabin, Clinton and Yasser Arafat: Bill Clinton is often remembered only for his impeachment and Monica Lewinsky scandal, but he also came very close to achieving peace in the Middle East. This famous photo was taken on September 13, 1993, and shows Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin shaking hands with Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat on the South Lawn of the White House. Clinton stands between them with his arms outstretched and with a smile on his face.
  4. Meeting of MLK and Malcolm X: Two of the most prominent and influential of the Civil Rights Movement held conflicting views on achieving equality — or power — and though they’re often lumped together in history classes today, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X only met once. Here the two men shake hands and smile as they greet each other before a Washington, D.C. press conference after a Senate debate on the Civil Rights Act of 1964. King was a staunch preacher of non-violence while Malcolm X embraced violence as an acceptable tactic for taking power away from white society.
  5. Marlboro Marine: This impressive photo is one of the most emotional of all images of the modern Iraq war. Taken by AP photographer Luis Sinco in 2004, Marine James Blake Miller takes a smoke break, but his eyes look pained, exhausted, confused, introspective, and even detached from what’s going on around him. It’s a moving photo that also speaks to the way soldiers are treated and rehabilitated once they return home.
  6. The Obamas, election night: Every American should be able to recognize its past and current presidents, and this photo from election night 2008 shows an especially historic moment. The newly chosen First Family — the Obamas — also became the first African American First Family on November 4, 2008. Barack Obama clasps the hand of his younger daughter Sasha, as Michelle hugs their older daughter Malia, on stage in Chicago’s Grant Park.
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