This article was originally published on HistoricTalk
A picture is worth a thousand words, and humanity has been snapping since 1839. That's a lot of words! A remarkable amount of history has been captured on film. Sometimes, the backstory of a photo is still unclear, years or decades later. We think it's time to tell the real story behind some of the most fascinating shots of the past. Some look incredibly ordinary until you know the background. But then, all bets are off! Revv up your time machine, and take a peek.
The samurai were the fighters of premodern Japan, in an era long past. They were the ruling military class and a high social caste, and you could pick them out by their weapon of choice. Taken around 1890, this photo recently made its rounds online. Looking at this vintage Japanese warrior, we can admire his armor and sword. Observers all seemed to notice one more thing: The subject of this portrait looks rather European!
Indeed, he is. Perhaps the first Japanophile we've ever seen captured on film, this is a western tourist in Asia. Around the turn of the last century, arms collecting in the orient was a pretty big deal. It was easy to find high-quality pieces for this special hobby back then. Lookin' good, sir!
The police database of mugshots is almost full these days. Millions of criminals committing crimes left and right have clogged up the system. What's this old example, right here? It might look ordinary, at first. But it's the legendary Rosa Parks! Back in 1955, this protest legend got in trouble for a very famous violation of the law. We all know the story by now: When this black American citizen refused to sit in the back of the bus, she was arrested.
It seems crazy today that this was a norm, but it took handcuffs and publicity to make the difference. Rosa's detainment inspired a movement called the Montgomery Bus Boycott, which became an important part of the Civil Rights Movement. Go Rosa!
This might seem like an unremarkable medical photo, at first glance. But the story behind the image here is no normal situation. If you've ever wondered how young is too young to become a mother, this will put the question in a whole new light. We often discuss the issue as a teen problem. But in 1939 in Peru, a five-year-old girl gave birth to a baby. Little Lina Medina suffered from a condition called precocious puberty which caused her to develop way, way too early. And evidently, a very bad man got the wrong idea.
Because she was so small, she had to have a C-section delivery. Lina became the youngest mom in medical history that we know about. The father is a mystery, to this day.
What is going on here? Three women appear to be hanging out in some sort of box. Is it a spa treatment of sorts? No, sadly. This picture is from a mental institution more than a hundred years ago. Here, we actually see patients in steam cabinets, alternating hot and cold for a claiming effect. In the early days of the field, doctors were not really sure what to do to help people experiencing psychological disorders. What else was going on in these facilities?
Honestly, a lot of things that we would not accept today. Doctors prescribed electric shocks and tranquilizers. Sometimes they tried long baths. It was all quite experimental, to be sure. We've certainly come a long way in the field!
Here, we see three modern women walking around town in the 1960s, wearing miniskirts and heels. They are pretty fashion-forward, as anyone can tell. But this is no ordinary picture. It's a snapshot of what Kabul, Afghanistan used to look like before the Taliban took over. No one seems to be aware that the country ever looked like this! Most pictures we have seen in the west included burkas and no female faces.
The radical rulers took over in the '90s and were later pushed out in an American invasion. But now, the Taliban are back. Will Afghan women be forced back into full coverings? Only time will tell.
At first glance, this looks like some sort of movie set. Is it the backdrop of an old horror movie? No, it is actually a real piece of history. We've all heard of Benito Mussolini, but what do we actually know about him? This picture might say a bit. Palazzo Braschi is a large palace in Rome. Today, it is a museum and looks totally different on the outside. But during the Italian fascist period, it was the site of Mussolini's headquarters. Pretty freaky, isn't it?
The face on the side of the building is meant to be the leader's face, and the word yes is written repeatedly in Italian. This was actually a campaign slogan, for the 1934 Italian general election. There was a simple yes or no vote for the Fascist Party list.
The tale behind this snapshot is a pretty sinister one that most Americans remember well. You may see a lot of teens smiling here, but those smiles would soon turn to tears at Columbine High School. If you look closely, you can actually see Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the left corner. Even now, they are pointing pretend guns at us. Evidently, they were already thinking about committing the most extreme school massacre in history, here in the bleachers.
Just a few weeks after this photo, Eric and Dylan killed 12 students and 1 teacher. The shocking event began a national conversation about guns in schools that persists to this very day.
This is Rodney Alcala, a serial killer who ended the lives of numerous women back in the 1970s. When he was finally nabbed decades later, people were shocked to see it was the same guy they had once known as a contestant on a dating gameshow. But that might not even be the strangest thing about him. Rodney decided to decline a lawyer in court, and represent himself. That resulted in the bizarre spectacle of a serial killer cross-examining himself.
Here he is, asking himself questions about the crime, and also answering questions about it. Was this strategy effective? No, in the end, he was sentenced to death. Sorry not sorry, Rodney.
Looking at this scene, it might not register right away, We've all seen shots of the moon from the space station, by now. But actually, this is not a picture of the moon in the distance at all. It's the earth, and it is incredibly striking to see it from this perspective. The famous shot is called "Earthrise", taken by NASA astronaut William Anders. This was a beautiful moment from the Apollo 8 mission, which was the first time humans took a voyage to orbit the moon, not just land on it.
Thanks to this mission, we know a lot more about space. But for internet browsers, the biggest benefit is that we can gawk at the earth rising above the lunar horizon. It's out of this world!
Prohibition in the United States was a long time ago, but we still talk about it sometimes. Isn’t it crazy that beer was totally illegal for a while? Yes, it is. A lot of women wanted drunkards to stop beating them, back in the day. This was a proposed solution! Police took the ban seriously and constantly busted pubs and the drinkers inside. But most people didn’t really follow the rules, and the popularity of the law dropped more and more over time.
How did people celebrate their first legal drink again? Like this, right here! The national constitutional ban lasted from 1920 to 1933, until folks like Al Capone and his gang caused too much violence. Ban the black market, and bring it all back, people said!
Nikola Tesla was one of the greatest inventors we've ever known. He always seemed to be working on something electrical and made dozens of breakthroughs in the field. Nikola once explained: "Electrical science has revealed to us the true nature of light, has provided us with innumerable appliances and instruments of precision, and has thereby vastly added to the exactness of our knowledge." What's he doing, sitting below this insane device?
Back in 1899, Nikola was fiddling with an idea for what he called the magnifying transmitter. It was meant to use the natural power of the earth to generate electricity, and it certainly seems to be doing something. It's no wonder Elon Musk named his car company after this guy!
There's a first time for everything, and that includes fashion. There had to be a first pair of blue jeans, and a first pair of go-go boots. It's also true that there was a first swimsuit. Here it is, in all its glory! If we didn't tell you, maybe that wouldn't be so obvious. It looks like a summer jumpsuit, from our modern perspective. The style is pretty conservative, isn't it?
The model here is actually Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman. She was the first gal to swim across the English Channel, and she was proud. Posing as a feminist statement in 1907, she advocated for the right to wear a fitted one-piece. Today, of course, we wear far less!
When it comes to climate, most people know that the closer you are to the equator, the hotter it gets. The middle east is a scorched, sandy place at times. Egypt was the place pharaohs fanned themselves by the Nile. And we're right to picture it that way. The average temperature range from more than 100° F in the summer to 45 °F in the winter. Not exactly cold, or snowy. So what's going on, right here?
These camels at the pyramids in Giza are cooling off, that's what. In 2013, it snowed. It was the first time in more than 100 years, and it freaked everyone out. Roads and schools were closed, and pictures were snapped.
So, so many soldiers sacrificed in America's wars. These days, their stories are being forgotten! In this blast from the past, we see one smiling WWI warrior, all dressed up with a medal on his chest. His name is Henry Johnson, and he really outdid himself in army combat. In the French forest, he fought off a regimen of 36 Germans using grenades, a knife, the butt of his rifle, and his own bare fists. All by himself! He made the newspaper, that's for sure.
When he came home, he was celebrated at first. But then, he went on a speaking tour revealing mistreatment by fellow white soldiers in the trenches. An arrest warrant was suddenly issued for wearing his uniform beyond the date of his service, his speaking tour ended, and he died penniless, somewhere unknown. These days, he is appreciated. But sadly, he will never know!
Who is this young, well-dressed gentleman? A sea of bunnies seems to be following him. Nothing out of the ordinary, if you are Hugh Hefner. Though the Playboy founder has passed on now, old pictures of him still tickle the public. Many couldn't wrap their head around his alternative lifestyle, during his day. He once explained: "The whole 1950s notion was find the right girl, get married, move to the suburbs and then hang out with the guys while she stayed home with the babies. I felt that was sort of sad."
Here, vintage Hugh arrives at the London Airport in 1966. His mission was to open the London Playboy Club, and this required an entourage. Only the most ravishing rabbits would do!
The very beginning of photography was a little grainy, as you can see here. One man tried to capture his own image with the newfangled contraption called a camera. Though the image is dark, you can certainly see his features. The man's real name is Robert Cornelius, and he was a lamp maker in Philadelphia. He took the world's very first selfie in 1839 and became a pioneer in the emerging art!
It's hard to imagine that old-timey people had access to this kind of technology. The 1800s seem like such a low-tech time, and that's mostly true. Rob was one of the few who had tried the device, at that point. But he wouldn't be the last!
Nothing out of the ordinary here. Just a man standing on top of a pile of thousands of skulls, that's all. Who hasn't? Just kidding, this is wild stuff. And in case you were getting nervous, this is actually just a pile of bison skulls. Otherwise known as buffalo, there used to be a lot of these woolly beasts roaming around North America. Where did they go, besides North Dakota?
In the 19th century, bison were hunted almost to the point of extinction. You might think people were just really hungry. But no! They had prized hides, and their bodies were usually left in the field to rot.
Give peace a chance, sang John Lennon. The times, they-are-a-changing, said Bob Dylan. What were they talking about, though? Back in the '60s, hippies had all kinds of ideas about the Vietnam war. They refused to go, for one. And they also wrote songs and participated in protests. Since cameras were everywhere, it all made for very iconic imagery today. Here, a black and white photo epitomizing flower power has been preserved.
This is an antiwar demonstration in Arlington, Virginia in 1967. As soldiers block the Pentagon from a crowd, one young American is inserting a flower into the barrel of a gun. Unexpectedly, to be sure.
We don't often hear about the affairs of Mongolia after Ghengis Khan. It seems that our textbooks skipped over the rest. But as it turns out, this Asian nation had royalty with exquisite costumes even into the last century. Here, Queen Genepil is pictured in her glorious royal attire. She was the very last Queen of her country and lived from 1905 to 1938. When she died, she had only been queen for a year! What happened?
As it turns out, the Soviet Union was creeping in. The monarchy was abolished, and she returned to her family. But that wasn't enough for Stalin. Now that there was a new system, it was down with the old. She was arrested and executed in 1938. So sad!
This kind old man is holding a picture of himself. His name is Tadeusz Zytkiewicz, and he is showing off the photo that was selected as the best of the year by National Geographic. The magazine decided to show his main surgeon, Dr. Zbigniew Religa, monitoring his recovery. He had just survived an experimental procedure, and it made history. It was the very first successful heart transplant that was performed in Poland, and Tadeusz was that patient.
The operation took 23 hours, ad the docs were exhausted. One colleague fell asleep after the surgery, pictured on the right. But it was a job well done, and he deserved the break. Tadeusz actually outlived Dr. Religa, which is outstanding for a procedure that was considered impossible at the time.
Back before we had smartphones, all kinds of communication had to do. There were telegraphs, and there were radios. And actually, humans once used pigeons! That's not a myth, and these birds were utilized during WWI. Electronic solutions were still not as reliable as birds, and war required a lot of written instructions. More than 100,000 were used during WWI with a 95% success rate in delivering messages from A to B. Surprisingly accurate, we say.
Named Cher Ami, which translated to 'dear friend', in French, the pigeon delivered a message that saved nearly 200 men. Along the way, she suffered a lot more than most. She was shot a few times and lost a leg — and an eye! She was later given a wooden leg by her army friends.
Looking at this photo it's hard to immediately understand. We can see a man and a woman, and he seems to be reaching out to her in front of a mirror. Or is he? On second thought, it seems he might be hitting her in front of a mirror. This famous picture was taken by photographer, Donna Ferrato who was documenting the lives of wealthy swingers in the early '80s. During a photoshoot, this couple actually got into a physical fight. Part of it was captured here, mid-swing.
Donna wanted the picture published, but several magazines refused. She eventually published it in a book about domestic violence, and people noticed it. Thanks to her work, in part, Congress passed the Violence Against Women Act in 1994.
It's 1959, and two killers are having a good laugh. They actually both just learned they had been sentenced to death, and this is how they reacted. Is there a right way to react? Maybe not. But it certainly made an interesting picture that survived all the way until now! The murderers are Richard Hickock and Perry Smith, and they took the lives of a family of four. The duo wanted to rob them but only found $50. Evidently, things escalated from there.
Looking at this photo without any context makes it look rather ordinary, even mundane. But seeing how casual these murders acted when they found out their fate is astonishing, even half a century later.
Here, we have an emotional goodbye between a son and a soldier. As this little boy would one day reflect: "I don’t remember the day this was taken, but I remember the next day. I was five years old and there was a lot of frantic running around, neighbors popping in, and relatives calling when everyone realized my picture was on the front of the Vancouver Daily Province." What did this picture mean to the townspeople, back in 1940?
The grown man would one day share the photo as the moment he said goodbye to his father before deployment in WWII. This was a big moment, in Canada. America had not even sent soldiers to the war yet!
In 1972, a demonstration occurred outside a factory in Saint-Brieuc, France. A photographer captured the action, as seen here. This shot stood out in the bunch as remarkable. It's an incredible coincidence, but two childhood friends met on different sides of the conflict. When they were kids, they were inseparable. But now, things have changed: One is a policeman, and one is a striking worker. What are the odds of that?
This is the very moment the worker realized his friend was the one with the baton. It must have been absolutely shocking! He dared his friend to hit him with the stick, according to witnesses at the time.
This picture was snapped of two brothers, Michael and Sean McQuilken. Is it photoshopped? No, these hairdos are authentic. The McQuilkens were visiting Sequoia National Park in 1975 with their sister Mary. Everything seemed fine and dandy until their hair started standing up straight in the air. It was peculiar, and sis captured the moment on camera. Moments later, they were struck by lightning! Both survived, miraculously, and lived to tell the tale.
Michael recalled: “At the time, we thought this was humorous. I took a photo of Mary and Mary took a photo of Sean and me. I raised my right hand into the air and the ring I had on began to buzz so loudly that everyone could hear it. I found myself on the ground with the others. Sean was collapsed and huddled on his knees. Smoke was pouring from his back.”
Antoine Agoudjian is a photographer of Armenian descent who decided to visit the motherland in the late '90s. It was then that he took this stunning snap. He recalled the scene: “In 1998, I found myself in Aparan, a large town an hour’s drive from Armenia’s capital, Yerevan. A local dance troupe was performing that evening, in the open air, with most of the suburb in attendance. As soon as I took my first shot, an old man approached me. Tears streamed down his face. He told me that his son had died. That he had been electrocuted, that he was his pride and joy, and that I looked just like him."
But that wasn't all: "He broke into sobs and moved towards me with outstretched arms. His name was Ishran. I asked if he would dance for me, and he began dancing. The troupe paused and perched on an outcrop of rocks in the background. It was beautiful, not because the man is beautiful, but because he represents something deep inside the collective consciousness of the Armenian community: a celebratory resilience in the face of overwhelming loss.”
Harold Edgerton was both an MIT physicist and a photographer. This skill combo led to his invention of strobe light photography, which used super rapid exposures to catch lightning-fast actions on film. With his innovation, he was able to capture a bullet piercing an apple. Then, there was this remarkable photo of an atomic bomb test in Nevada. It's a big bubble, but it's actually also something else. This photo captured an unusual event in 1952, when bombs were a big field of research.
The shutter speed was one hundred millionth of a second. A normal camera would have missed this moment, without a doubt. It's an atomic bomb test, in Nevada. Would you have guessed?
Looking at this big, groovy clan, nothing looks out of the ordinary. It's 1971 in Sweden, and these tourists from the middle east are enjoying the Western fashion of the era and a pink convertible car. Whoever they are, they look like a relaxed, fun bunch. Would you believe us if we said these are the Bin Ladens? If you look closely, you can see a young Osama at age 14. He is second from the left and wearing a brown shirt.
Truly, no one would have guessed this harmless youngster would become infamous. He was from a wealthy, educated family, after all. Plus, what are the odds? Not many rich kids grow up to be murderous militants!
This is an old photo of the SS Grandcamp. It certainly seems ordinary, here at the dock. But that's all about to radically change! A fire has started on board in April, 1947. The men on the dock belong to the Texas City Volunteer Fire Department, and they've lept into action. They are doing their very best to put out the flames before something more serious occurs. Little do they know that in just moments, everything would explode to smithereens. The S.S. Grandcampwas carrying ammonium nitrate.
A few minutes after this picture, the world saw the largest non-nuclear explosion ever, at that time. Records show that 468 souls died that day, and more than 5,000 were injured. If anything good came out of it, it led to brand new regulations on ammonium nitrate through a supreme court lawsuit. Crazy times!
Labor laws used to be very different one hundred years ago. This photo was taken in 1912, and it shows the kinds of hazards children had to deal with at work. We don't even use sentences like that anymore. Children, at work? Yes, that was a reality. For 11-year-old Giles Edmund Newsom here, he had to deal with heavy machinery and spinning metal. When a giant machine fell on his foot, he spun around into a gear that tore off his fingers.
How did the Newsom family react? Apparently not well. According to his aunt: “Now he’s he's got to where he could be of some help to his ma, an’ then this happens and he can’t never work no more like he oughter.” Translated from country talk, now he couldn't help his mom with bills anymore.
Rajiv Gandhi was the sixth prime minister of India, starting in 1984. He took office after his mom, Indira, was assassinated, who also happened to be the prime minister. Sadly, his rule would end in 1989. A suicide bomber wearing orange flowers hugged him, and detonated her bomb. The photographer was also killed during the attack, but somehow the picture survived. The murderer is the woman with orange flowers on the top left. Do you see her?
It's eerie to look at her now when we know what comes next. Clearly, her target does not. Behind the scenes, the Tamil Tigers were responsible. After their arranged assassination, May 21 was declared Anti-Terrorism Day in India.
This photo was taken during the great depression, one of the most depressing times in American history economically — and emotionally. Titled “Migrant Mother,” the image is one of most recognized from the era. The woman pictured is named Florence Owens Thompson, allegedly a mother forced to sell her car tires for food. But when she was tracked down years later, she said she didn't even have tires to sell.
The story was not quite true, but the desperation on her face certainly was. The Great Depression took place during most of the ’30s. Ever wonder why you never hear anything bout this decade? It was basically lost, that’s why!
Today, this face is associated with a famous inscription: "Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore." If that sounds familiar, maybe you've had a visit to the Statue of Liberty lately. The gift from France became one of the most recognizable landmarks in America and remains so to this day. But at one time, she was still separate parts.
The lady in the photo here is posing next to Lady Liberty in France, before the big shipment. For a while, she was a tourist attraction, as pieces spread throughout a local city garden. The more you know!
This politician famously said, "You have enemies? Good. That means you’ve stood up for something, sometime in your life." His words have inspired generations of admirers to be the best they can be. But who is he, and why is he so angry here? As it turns out, this is Winston Churchill. And he isn't angry because he is in a contentious political argument. He is mad because the photographer just snatched away his cigar, and snapped the shot.
Yes, he was angry, but this turned out to be an iconic photo from 1941 of the British leader, and we treasure it to this day. Thay stubborn face looks so authentic — because it is!
Something big and gassy happened on n May 6, 1937. That day was the Hindenburg disaster, and it will forever be remembered as the reason we do not travel by blimp. In 1852, the world saw the first powered airship. It began to gain popularity as a futuristic form of travel over the next few decades. But the industry fell apart after the Hindenburg exploded over Lakehurst, New Jersey. Sadly, 36 people died in a fiery manner, and that was the end of the biz.
Perhaps these accidents were not really so likely. Maybe safety precautions could be put into place, and improve the odds. Whatever the case may have been at that time, customers were simply not interested after seeing this photo. Honestly, would you be?
We've all heard of Woodstock, but what was the 1969 hippie festival really like? According to Boston Globe, at the time: "The Woodstock Music and Art Festival will surely go down in history as a mass event of great and positive significance in the life of the country...That this many young people could assemble so peaceably and with such good humor in a mile-square area...speaks volumes about their dedication to the ideal of respect for the dignity of the individual...In a nation beset with a crescendo of violence, this is a vibrantly hopeful sign. If violence is infectious, so, happily, is nonviolence."
That certainly sounds all high and mighty. But what about practical, stinky matters? From the looks of this photo, it was quite a crowd. Can you even imagine trying to find the porta-potty, halfway through a set?
In 1976, photographer Stanley Forman won the Pulitzer Prize. He captured this startling moment as two people fell from a burning house in Boston. They tried to take the escape stairs on the outside of the building, but the whole structure collapsed. As they fell, Stanley snapped his camera. The subjects turned out to be teen Diana Bryant and her toddler goddaughter, Tiare Jones. The landing was terrible, and Diana did not survive.
And little Tiare? She did survive the fall and lived to see the tragic picture. Titled "Fire on Marlborough Street", it remains an iconic, if sad, piece of photojournalism for local news.
Everyone knows that the Brits took over the world for a while and colonized continents. North America, Africa, and Asia were all interesting to colonial Englishmen. They had a big presence in India, especially, for many years. During their rule, they introduced democracy to the nation for the first time in its history. Here, a photograph shows a local man voting in the first election of his life for the Imperial Legislative Council and the Provincial Councils in 1920. That's a pretty big deal!
The governmental body was shared betweens seats for Europeans and locals. Some were reserved for Brits, some for Muslims, some for Sikhs, some for Hindus. Today, the British are long gone. But they made their mark. Modern India still votes today!
Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon, as most people know. In 1969, he took those first steps where no human had gone before. Here is the iconic image of Neil on that floating rock. Was this the height of his career? Maybe only literally. He was high above the atmosphere. But according to Neil, he didn't want to take too much credit. He thought the NASA team also deserved a lot of credit, too.
He didn't get up there all by himself. According to humble Neil: "I guess we all like to be recognized not for one piece of fireworks, but for the ledger of our daily work."
Betty Brosmer was one of the most iconic pin-up girls of the 1950s- but did you know how old she was when she got her start? 13 years old. “When I was 15, I was made up to look like I was about 25,” Brosmer recalls about being forced to grow up quickly. Luckily, she kept a good head on her shoulders and refused to pose nude despite Playboy's pleas. She moved on to be a fitness model who also inspired others to get into shape with her "impossible waist".
But was Betty's figure potentially problematic? It's no secret that diet trends of the 1950s weren't healthy for the women trying to achieve Betty's look.