20 Iconic Photos From The 20th Century And The Amazing Stories Behind Them


In parallel with the technological advancements of the 20th century, photography also saw a rapid development in this era. So it’s not surprising to recall iconic figures of the 20th century with their iconic photos or terrible disasters with their heartbreaking scenes. Here are 20 of those photos and their interesting stories.

1. Child labor

While scenes like this weren't that commonplace — an 1885 law required boys to be at least 12 years old to work in coal breakers, and 14 to work in mines — this photo presents a stark reminder of the popularity of child labor in the early 20th century. 

In the early 1900s, one million children aged 10-15 were already hard at work – either in factories or on farms.

2. The Great San Francisco Earthquake


The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 remains the greatest loss of life from a natural disaster in California's history — and high in the list of American urban disasters. It tossed Stanford College’s statue of Swiss naturalist Louis Agassiz from a second story ledge headfirst into the concrete. 

The statue was embedded to the hips, but only Agassiz’s nose broke during the event. The statue was later repaired, and (more securely) re-attached to the building.

3. Mask of the Dead


In the early 20th century, individuals would sometimes elect to have death masks made of the recently deceased. The plaster casts were used as mementos or sometimes as a model to paint a posthumous portrait. If the death resulted from severe injury to the head, the bereaved would have casts of hands made instead.  

Here, men apply plaster to a corpse’s face, circa 1908.

4. Titanic disaster


A paperboy holds crushing news about the 1912 Titanic disaster outside the Oceanic House offices of White Star Line, the owner of the Titanic. 

Edward (Ned) John Parfett, the boy holding the paper in the iconic image, would be killed in World War I — less than six years later — at the age of 22.

5. The Kid


This publicity photo from Charlie Chaplin's 1921 movie The Kid marks Chaplin’s first full-length movie. He also wrote, produced, and directed the film, which critics consider to be one of the greatest achievements of the silent film era. 

In 1921, the year of its release, The Kid was the second-highest-grossing film.

6. Albert Einstein


Albert Einstein photographed during a lecture in Vienna in 1921. Einstein was, without a doubt, one of the greatest minds of the 20th century. Surprisingly, his Nobel Prize was not for his “theory of relativity" but for his work in helping explain the photoelectric effect — a phenomenon in which metals emit electrons when hit by light.

7. Tutankhamun Burial Site


In 1922 Harry Burton captured the famed pharaoh Tutankhamen's intact seal on his funeral chamber door. Burton, whom many regarded as the best archaeological photographer of his time, spent the next eight years carefully cataloging the historical find in photographs. He was the only photographer authorized to enter the Tutankhamen burial site.

8. Hyperinflation


When attempting to explain the material conditions that permitted Adolf Hitler's rise, many point to Germany's devastating experience with hyperinflation. 

In this photo, taken in 1923, children playing with worthless German currency. At the height of Germany’s hyperinflation, it took 4.2 trillion Deutsche Marks to equal $1 USD.

9. Dust Bowl


Buried machinery is shown on a lot in Dallas, South Dakota during the 1930s Dust Bowl. The bowl marked an ecological and economic disaster in the Great Plains region of North America. 

Drought- and wind-induced dust storms brought the nickname “the dirty thirties” to the decade.

10. Dorothea Lange


Dorothea Lange in 1936, pictured atop a Ford Model C in California. While best known for her humanizing images of the Great Depression, Lange also recorded the forced evacuation of Japanese-Americans from the West Coast while on assignment for the War Relocation Authority. Deeming them too critical, the Army impounded a great deal of the photos Lange took of this event and kept them from the public eye for over 50 years.

11. Frida Kahlo


The iconic Frida Kahlo as photographed by Toni Frissell for Vogue Magazine in 1937. Frissell's photos would later appear in a feature called the “Señoras of Mexico." 

While well known for her outdoor fashion portraits, Frissell never learned the finer points of shooting film in a studio.

12. Women in the workforce


A woman operates machine parts at Fort Worth, Texas' Consolidated Aircraft Corporation plant, 1942. 

Part of a series of colorized wartime portraits, this photo depicts one of the many real-life Rosie the Riveters of WWII. As the war raged on and drew men into the battlefield, women filled empty factory positions, cementing the fact that a woman could also make a home in a workplace.

13. Hitler’s Munich residence


Vogue photographer, Lee Miller, sits in the bathtub of Adolf Hitler’s Munich residence — the very day that Hitler and Eva Braun took their lives in Berlin. 

The New York Times said of this photo, "A picture of the Führer balances on the lip of the tub; a classical statue of a woman sits opposite it on a dressing table; Lee, in the tub, inscrutable as ever, scrubs her shoulder. A woman caught between horror and beauty, between being seen and being the seer."

14. Ingrid Bergman


Ingrid Bergman appears in the foreground of this photo, taken in 1949, during the filming of Stromboli. Bergman was in exile in Italy at the time, having fled the U.S. in response to public scorn over her affair with Italian director Roberto Rossellini. Bergman would later marry Rossellini, have three more children (including famed actress Isabella Rossellini), and then divorce him in 1957. 

While Bergman eventually returned to the United States, her private decisions as a woman tended to divide her professional life into “before” and “after” the affair.

15. The structure of DNA

In this 1953 photo, James D. Watson and Francis Crick pose with their Double Helix model, which visualized the structure of DNA and changed science forever. 

The photos Barrington-Brown took of the pair were not published for at least another decade, even after Watson and Crick won the Nobel Prize for their discovery in 1962.

16. A Llama in Times Square


Inge Morath took the photo featured here “A Llama in Times Square,” in 1957. The image appeared in LIFE Magazine in a one-page feature about television’s most beloved animals. 

Many view Morath as one of the greatest photographers of her generation, and this is one of her most celebrated images. 

Morath would later meet Arthur Miller on the set of The Misfits and would marry one another after Miller finalized his divorce with Marilyn Monroe.

17. Marilyn Monroe


Taken on the set of the film The Misfits in the summer of 1960, this marks Monroe’s final screen appearance, just two years before her death. 

Eve Arnold had photographed Monroe for a decade, but many regard the shots taken during this period as the best. 

The film’s other star, Clark Gable, died of a heart attack a mere 12 days after filming his final scene.

18. Martin Luther King Jr.


Martin Luther King Jr. attends the 1963 Civil Rights March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. This is where he delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, calling for an end to racism. 

Estimated to have 200,000 to 300,000 marchers in attendance, the Civil Rights March on Washington is one of the largest rallies in US history - recently surpassed in number by the Women's March on Washington in 2017, in which 500,000 people gathered in protest.

19. NASA's first black female engineer


Mary Jackson with a wind tunnel model at NASA's Langley Research Center in 1977. 

Jackson was NASA's first black female engineer and achieved the most senior engineering title available within the aeronautics company. Jackson's story is included in the book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African-American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race" (2016) and the movie of the same name.

20. "The Eagle Has Landed - Two Men Walk on the Moon."

On July 21, 1969, a girl holds a copy of The Washington Post, whose headline reads "The Eagle Has Landed - Two Men Walk on the Moon." 

On this day, the space race with the Soviet Union ended as Neil Armstrong of the Apollo 11 mission made the historic walk, exclaiming, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”

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