The True Stories Behind 8 Of History's Most Famous Pictures

You've surely heard of the adage, "A picture is worth a thousand words." But, it's also true that some pictures resonate with us for a lifetime.

Here are the true stories behind 8 of history's most famous photographs.

08
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The Hindenberg explodes, May 6, 1937

Hindenberg
Hindenberg explodes. Hulton Archive/Archive Photos

Simply put, The Hindenburg was the largest aircraft to take flight. It was 804-ft. long, filled with over 7 million cubic ft. of hydrogen, and was just 78 ft. shorter than the Titanic.  

The luxurious ship was attempting to dock at Lakehurst Naval Air Station on May 6, 1937, in a lightening storm, when suddenly a "small, mushroom-shaped flame" rose from the top of the tail of the ship, just in front of the tail fin. Filled with flammable hydrogen, the ship ignited, and was completely engulfed within just 34 seconds. 

A gas leak combined with static electricity was the official cause, but given Hindenburg's role in Nazi propaganda (the ship was ordered to fly over every German city with a population over 100,000 to drop Nazi campaign pamphlets), researchers have suggested many other theories.

The photo shows the moment the ship caught fire and was taken by Gus Pasquarella of the Philadelphia Bulletin. 

07
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Lincoln's last portrait, February 5, 1865

Abraham Lincoln. Alexander Gardner

As the U.S. Civil War started to wind down in February of 1865, Abraham Lincoln visited photographer Alexander Gardner's studio in Washington for a portrait session, where this photo was taken.

The original purpose of the session has been largely forgotten. An artist, Matthew Wilson, wanted to make a painting of Lincoln, and to save time Lincoln agreed to sit for portraits Wilson would paint from.

This photo became iconic because of the visual signs of stress on Lincoln's face after years of war was particularly evident and the potential symbolism of the crack in the plate of the original print. 

It was also one of the last photos taken of Lincoln. A month later, he would issue his second inaugural address. Two months later, he would be assassinated. 

06
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LBJ sworn in after JFK assassination, November 22, 1963

Lyndon B. Johnson is sworn in as President. National ArchivesHulton Archive

Hours after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and just before to  leaving for Washington, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson took the oath of office in the conference room of the plane.

The iconic nature of this photo is magnified by the fact that Jacqueline Kennedy was still wearing the pink suit that was splattered with the blood of her dead husband. The frantic and cramped nature of the oath also speaks to the chaos currently happening at the time.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Hughes administered the oath of office, becoming the first woman to do so.

05
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Buzz Aldrin on the moon, July 20, 1969

Buzz Aldrin on the moon. NASA/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

After landing the Lunar Module on the moon, Buzz Aldrin became the second man to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong's famous first steps a few hours before.

The photo of Aldrin standing next to a waving American flag speaks to the enormity of the triumph that the Apollo missions represented for America.

But, of course, the flag was not actually waving. The rod that was meant to hold the flag out horizontally would not fully extend, giving the flag the appearance of actually waving in the airless environment. The flag itself was difficult to stand up too, and getting beyond 6 to 8 inches into the lunar soil proved to be an unexpected challenge.

04
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Union dead at Gettysburg, July 1, 1863

Union dead at Gettysburg. Timothy H O'Sullivan/Getty Images

In an era well before radio or TV, photographs were only way to get an true idea of the carnage and brutal nature of the U.S. Civil War.

While the field of photography was starting to mature during the time of the Civil War, none of the photographs taken during the Civil War were actually taken during combat simply because it was too difficult.

This left photographs of a more macabre variety as the most famous ones of the era - photographs of those killed and injured during battle. 

This Timothy H. O'Sullivan photograph shows the site where Union General John Reynolds was killed at Gettysburg. As he directed troops into the fighting near Herbst Woods, Reynolds was shot in the neck or head. Falling from his horse, he was killed instantly, one of more than 50,000 casualties over the three day battle.

03
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John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand, October 19, 1968

John Carlos (left) and Tommie Smith on the Olympic Medal Stand in 1968. Hulton Archive/Archive Photos/Getty Images

During the 1968 Olympic Summer Games in Mexico City a simple gesture. captured on film, would make headlines around the world.

Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith won the gold and bronze medals in the 200 meter race. 

After they received their medals and during the playing of the "Star Spangled Banner," they each raised one hand covered by a black glove, in a Black Power salute. They also wore black scarves and black socks. The United States was in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and the gesture was intended to show support for the plight of African Americans in the United States.

The gesture resulted in the pair being expelled from the Olympic games, after the International Olympic Committee stated, "The basic principle of the Olympic Games is that politics plays no part whatsoever in them. U.S. athletes violated this universally accepted principle...to advertise domestic political views." That said, IOC's history towards politics has been mixed at best.

02
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Migrant Mother, 1936

Florence Thompson and two of her children. Dorothea Lange/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This Dorothea Lange photo of migrant mother Florence Thompson and two of her children came to symbolize the plight of many Americans during the Great Depression. 

In 1960, Lange gave this recount of the moment the photo was taken:

I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.

01
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Flag over Iwo Jima, February 23, 1945

Flag over Iwo Jima. SuperStock/Getty Images

This picture of U.S. Marines raising a flag over the island of Iwo Jima after one of the bloodiest battles in World War II has become one of history's most iconic.  But, it's also one of history's most controversial. Was it staged? Well, yes, but there's more to the story than that. 

Marines had already raised a flag over the island before photographer Joe Rosenthal had arrived. He first unsuccessfully attempted to find the men who originally raised the flag for a picture with it.  

He then focused on a group of six including Mike Strank, Harlon Block, Franklin Sousley, John Bradley, Rene Gagnon and Ira Hayes who were getting ready to put up a second flag. This second flag raising was the subject of the photo.

Rosenthal, from the beginning, was honest. His original instructions to the reporter who was to write the story that would use the photo included the fact that the photo was of the second flag raising. But, this fact was lost to history and would ultimately spark a controversy.

Next: See more famous photos and the stories behind them