World’s 15 Most Iconic Portraits

Some photographs last longer in the mind because of the subject and there is nothing more interesting to people than, other people.

I’ve got 15 different stories to share with you from some of the world’s most iconic portraits. They reveal the interesting stories and untold stories that made them famous, or in some instances, infamous.

You can watch part 1 of our investigation in the video below. Scroll to the bottom of this article to catch part 2. 

1. Afghan Girl by Steve McCurry (1984)

The portrait of Sharbat Gula was captured by photojournalist McCurry in a Pakistani refugee camp during the time of the Soviet Union’s occupation of Afghanistan. Sharbat was not identified as the girl until 2002 by which time she was in her 30’s.

The portrait has been revered for a number of reasons, some citing it is the ‘Mona Lisa of the Third World’ and others saying it was a depiction of oppression on society.

The portrait was first published on the front cover of National Geographic in 1985 and was an instant talking point. Gula’s red headscarf and the green background was a striking composition, along with her piercing stare underlined McCurry’s ability as a photo journalist.

Gula was eventually credited as the Afghan Girl in 2002 using iris recognition technology and she claims she still remembers the moment that McCurry took the photograph.

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Image Copyright Steve McCurry (1984)

2. Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange (1936)

Taken in the middle of America’s Great Depression, Lange’s portrait of Florence Owens Thompson and her children shows the effects that hyperinflation and lack of employment had on the American people during the 30’s.

Thompson was only 32 in the portrait but is often mistaken for a lot older which is attributed to the stresses and strains that raising 7 children had whilst suffering from the effects of an economic disaster. Her pained and worried face sources from the fact her family were out looking for work when their car broke down and they found themselves in a pea pickers camp with around 3,000 other people.

Lange, who was working for the government at the time as a relocation officer arrived and took 7 photographs of the Thompson family and again like the McCurry portrait Thompson’s name was not recorded in Lange’s field notes leaving a near 40-year gap before she was identified as the subject.

After being located Florence Owens Thompson was quoted as saying ‘I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. 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’.

Lange was funded by the federal government when she took the picture, so the image was in the public domain and Lange never received any royalties. However, the picture did help make Lange a celebrity and earned her “respect from her colleagues”.

The remaining 6 portraits of the family can be seen here.

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Image Copyright Dorothea Lange (1936)

3. The Vulture and The Little Girl by Kevin Carter (1993)

Probably one of the more harrowing and saddening portraits taken in recent times was captured by Kevin Carter during the famine of Sudan. The picture picked up a Pulitzer Prize for its heart breaking illustration of a vulture stalking the weakened body of a young Sudanese child Kong Nyong.

It was heralded as a need to react to the situation in Africa and funds for aid was raised off the back of Carter’s image published in The New York Times.

The image was taken by Kevin Carter whilst on assignment covering the drought and famine with colleague Joao Silva. At the very end of their stay in Ayod, Silva had separated from Carter to head to their nearby plane and Carter saw the situation of the vulture following the child unfold, after he took the shots, he chased the vulture away and left immediately for his flight.

Unfortunately, the moment had a profound effect on him as he couldn’t stop relating to the Nyong as his young daughter Megan and he was regretful he didn’t help the child more. 4 months after being awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography in March 1994, Carter committed suicide.

In 2011, it was reported by her father that Kong Nyong had passed away in 2007.

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Image Copyright Kevin Carter (1993)

4. Marilyn Monroe’s Flying Skirt by Sam Shaw (1954)

Sam Shaw was a stills photographer working on the film 7 Year Itch when he captured the iconic moment known as the ‘Flying Dress’. Many thought it was a paparazzi moment caught (as a second staging of this event was held again for the press).

But the truth is that Shaw and Monroe were close friends for years prior to this moment – they would travel to the film set everyday together.

The moment was all scripted too, Monroe’s character was to exit a movie theatre and stand over an air vent whilst the underground train passed and a plum of steam rose up in turn lifting her skirt and revealing her bare legs. In the posed photograph Monroe can be seen mouthing in the direction of Shaw, said ‘Hey Sam Spade!’ (her pet name for Shaw).

Though it may not seem racy or controversial nowadays but in the 50’s this moment was iconic as Kim Kardashian appearing fully nude on the front cover of PAPER magazine in 2014. 

Monroe’s fame as the jewel of Hollywood was shining bright and this portrait displayed her playful and teasing mannerisms which captivated so many male audiences, whereas the truth was that Monroe was struggling daily with depression.

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Image Copyright Sam Shaw (1954)

5. Guerrillero Heroico by Alberto Korda (1960)

Translated to English as ‘Heroic Guerrilla Fighter’, Alberto Korda’s portrait of Che Guevara is probably one the most re-produced portrait on our list. You’ll no doubt have seen it printed on t-shirts and posters re-affirming the idea that Guevara was the poster boy hero of Cuba.

Guevara’s charismatic character and rugged good looks made the portrait popular and increased his fame amongst his countrymen during the Cuban struggles. The portrait has been likened to a symbol of freedom and has been reused numerous times during conflicts across the world.

Korda took the photograph during a memorial service that Presidential Fidel Castro arranged to honour the victims of the Havana Harbour killings. Guevara stepped in to view for just a few seconds for Korda to snap the portrait before he quickly disappeared.

Even Korda recalled that “this photograph is not the product of knowledge or technique. It was really coincidence, pure luck”.

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Image Copyright Alberto Korda (1960)

6. ‘Abraham Lincoln’ by Thomas Hicks (1860)

This the one portrait on our list that isn’t a natural photograph which is ironic given that it is the oldest image in our list.

Lincoln’s portrait was actually a composite using the body of another politician John C. Calhoun. A lot of Lincoln supporters felt that, though his ideologies were popular with the voters, he didn’t look very presidential or statesman like so they wanted to create an everlasting image of him appearing to be heroic.

This iconic portrait of Lincoln was published multiple times after his death in 1865 with the aim to perpetuate this heroic status.

Though this, forgery of sought, was ground breaking when discovered, it has been a common practice for heroic figures to be given a more impressive appearance prior to the digital age.

Portraits of General Ulysses S Grant, Josef Stalin, Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler have all been doctored in some form to improve the image and myth of their character.

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Image Copyright Thomas Hicks (1860)

7. Steve Jobs by Albert Watson (2006)

Scottish photographer Watson was hired by a magazine to capture a series of images about the most powerful people in America – enter Steve Jobs.

Jobs was notoriously camera-shy and disliked photographers making Watson’s job more challenging, but he overcame the first barrier by telling Jobs the photo shoot would last half the time than expected, it instantly relaxed Jobs and curried favour with Watson.

Watson approached the idea like a passport picture – plain background and no smiling. Jobs was told to look in to the camera and imagine you are facing 3 or 4 people who disagree with you but in your head, you know you’re right. Jobs said ‘that’s easy, I do that every day’.

The authoritative look of Jobs in the portrait affirmed his iconic status as the founder of Apple and displayed this powerful character masked within a frail, mortal frame.

Jobs said it was the best portrait ever taken of him and was used by Apple to announce the death of Jobs in 2011.

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Image Copyright Albert Watson (2006)

8. Albert Einstein by Arthur Sasse (1951)

The scientific personality of Albert Einstein was not known for wacky expressions which makes Sasse’s portrait of him during his 72nd birthday an iconic, yet rare, the image of this genius.

Lots of smiling photographs had been taken of Einstein during the day of him happily enjoying his celebrations, but Sasse wanted something different in his portrait so instead Einstein stuck out his tongue in a light-hearted moment breaking the hard, stoic image of a revered mind.

The portrait became a idiom in later years and the idea of the ‘mad scientist’ lovingly arose from one moment. His wild, unkempt hair and wrinkled face added to the feeling of a misunderstood genius who’s work we wouldn’t come to understand or prove for years after.

Einstein, like Steve Jobs, loved the photograph and asked for numerous copies of the portrait. In 2009, an original signed copy of the photograph sold at auction for nearly $75,000.

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Image Copyright Arthur Sasse (1951)

9. Winston Churchill by Yousuf Karsh (1941)

In the middle of World War 2, Prime Minister Winston Churchill found himself walking into a photoshoot during a visit to the Canadian parliament in Ottawa.

Though agreed by his advisers, Churchill had not been told Karsh was assigned to take his picture that day. Churchill walked on to the set as Karsh turned his lights on startling his subject only to reply ‘Sir, I hope I will be fortunate enough to make a portrait worthy of this historic occasion’.

Churchill’s response was ‘Why was I not told?’, from which a few murmurs of laughter broke out amongst his entourage.

The ever-present cigar was lit as Churchill allowed Karsh to ‘take one’ photo, but Karsh wanted to dispose of the overly associated cigar but Winston was not forthcoming.

Karsh played the waiting game until his time was up and he simply walked up to Churchill, asked for his forgiveness as he yanked the cigar out of his mouth and then took the shot.

The reaction of Churchill is perfect, his eyes are disapproving, his body language demanding and impatient, it was an iconic encapsulation of this war hero Prime Minister.

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Image Copyright Yousuf Karsh (1941)

10. The Agony of Omayra Sanchez by Frank Fournier (1985)

What you’re seeing is the last photo ever taken of 13yr old Omayra Sánchez. Shot in 1985 and set against the backdrop of the Nevado del Ruiz volcano which had just erupted. Omayra was trapped in water and concrete debris for 3 days.

Moments after this was taken, Omayra Sanchez died, which created quite a controversy regarding Fournier’s inaction.

“I felt the story was important for me to report and I was happier that there was some reaction; it would have been worse if people had not cared about it. … I believe the photo helped raise money from around the world in aid and helped highlight the irresponsibility and lack of courage of the country’s leaders.”

The photograph won the World Press Photo of the Year for 1986.

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Image Copyright Frank Fournier (1985)

11. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima by Joe Rosenthal (1945)

Four days after invading Iwo Jima, American troops planted a small flag atop Mt. Suribachi. The flag was ordered to be replaced with a larger one that could be seen by troops across the island.

Rosenthal’s iconic photograph is actually a restaging of the original flag planting. He was subsequently was accused of staging the moment. The image went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

Three of the Marines in the photo were killed in action on Iwo Jima. The other three survivors were sent back to the U.S., where they were treated as heroes.

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Image Copyright Joe Rosenthal (1945)

12. V-J Day Celebration by Alfred Eisenstaedt (1945)

Alfred Eisenstaedt this moment of a sailor laying on a celebratory kiss on a lady in the middle of New York City’s V-J Day Celebrations in Times Square.

Little known fact is that a Navy photographer called Victor Jorgensen also happened to get a shot of the impromptu kiss, from a different angle but it’s rarely seen.

No one got a chance to ask the couple their names. As the years when by and the photograph became more iconic a number of men and several women came forward to claim they were the ones in the photo.

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Image Copyright Alfred Eisenstaedt (1945)

13. Hyeres by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1932)

Cartier-Bresson’s image is a wonderful demonstration of composition in frame. He used the rule of thirds, leading lines, and a golden spiral (alongside the slower shutter speed) to show a great sense of movement and dynamism of the rider.

The ‘decisive moment’, the term that Cartier-Bresso is famed for coining, is obvious, and it contrasts the freedom of the cyclist, against the harshness of the balcony and railings.

The image is a product of patience. Photography is about patience, and we must never forget it.

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Image Copyright Henri Cartier-Bresson (1932)

14. Lunchtime atop a Skyscraper by Charles C. Ebbets (1932)

This iconic photograph featuring the construction of the Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan was taken by Charles C. Ebbets in 1932. Many people question whether the scene really happened or if it was just a stunt.

Although the photograph shows real ironworkers other photographs taken on the same day show some of the workers throwing a football and pretending to sleep on the girder.

The man on the right was called Gustáv (Gusti) Popovič from Slovakia. In 1932 he sent his wife Mária (Mariška) a postcard with this photograph on which he wrote,

“Don’t you worry, my dear Mariška, as you can see, I’m still with bottle. Your Gusti.”

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Image Copyright Charles C. Ebbets (1932)

15. Schuman by Peter Liebing (1961)

When a 19-year-old photographer Peter Liebing arrived at the Western Border in Berlin her was informed by the local police that something worth his attention was about to happen.

Nothing happened for hours, but then Schumann, a GDR border guard, ran and jumped over the barbed wire, defecting from East to West Germany.

To some it became a symbol of freedom during the Cold War, others saw him as a traitor as he left his family on the other side of the wall.

“I had him in my sight for more than an hour. I had a feeling he was going to jump. It was kind of an instinct… I had learned how to [get the timing right photographing horses] at the Jump Derby in Hamburg. You have to photograph the horse when it leaves the ground and catch it as it clears the barrier. And then he came. I pressed the shutter and it was all over.”

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Image Copyright Peter Liebing (1961)


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