They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and in many ways that’s true. You can get so much information from a photograph without ever hearing a word about it. Sometimes, however, there’s an entire story behind a picture that adds so much more depth to an already powerful image.
Pictures can give us a glimpse into the past, showing us people and events that we’ll never be able to see for ourselves. In this way, they can be even more compelling than written accounts of history – in photos, you can see things for yourself.
There are plenty of incredible historical photos that don’t need a caption. The image itself is enough to convey a feeling or an idea. Other photos, however, might look nice on their own but become so much more meaningful when you learn the story behind them.
Here are some of the best historical photos with fascinating stories behind them.
We sure have come a long way since the 1970s! Today, if a college student wants to talk to their friends and family back home, all they have to do is pull out their cell phone. When this picture was taken, however, it wasn’t so easy.
These young women were photographed while they were taking advantage of the phones in their dormitory. Late at night, students would line up by the communal phones, waiting their turn to place a call. Of course, they had to know the phone number by heart, or bring along an address book. They couldn’t hog the line for too long, and there also wasn’t much privacy available.
Technology sure has changed since this picture was taken in 1961. At the time, the United States was involved in the Race for Space against the Soviet Union. Both countries wanted to send a man to space before the other, and their space programs worked frantically to calculate complex trajectories and formulas.
Since computers were not yet in existence, the calculations were often done on huge chalkboards, like the one pictured here. These scientists were posing for a photo for Life magazine, so the formulas on the board are probably not the top secret ones they were really working on.
Louis and Lucille Armstrong in Egypt
Often thought of as one of the most influential jazz musicians, Louis Armstrong was a famous composer, singer, and trumpeter who delighted audiences from the 1920s through the 1960s. When this photograph was taken in 1961, Armstrong had already had an impressive career behind him.
He was playing his popular music all over the world, serving almost as a sort of ambassador for United States culture. Armstrong knew nothing about the politics in the region at the time, and refused to discriminate, happy to play for anyone who wanted to listen. In this picture, he is playing for his fourth and final wife Lucille Wilson, who was with him until his death in 1971.
During World War II, soldiers engaged in trench warfare, shooting at each other from deep ditches that faced each other. Between the trenches was an expanse called no-man’s land, where nobody wanted to be caught because it was exposed to fire.
On first glance, this photo simply looks like a group of soldiers on the same side playing a game of soccer. However, the truth behind the picture is incredible. During Christmas 1914, an unofficial ceasefire was called that known as the Christmas Truce. British, French, and German soldiers from both sides of the conflict ventured into no-man’s land, singing carols, chatting, swapping gifts, and even taking part in a friendly game of soccer.
Amazing moving pictures
Televisions are a completely normal thing to find in nearly every home, but that wasn’t always the case. Before TVs were commonplace, the idea of a box that displayed moving pictures seemed nearly impossible. Even though the first electronic TV set was invented in 1927, it took several years for the television to develop into a usable commodity, and even more time for them to become available commercially.
The devices were bulky and expensive, and most families couldn’t afford one. After World War II, however, more and more American families began to experience the joy of TV. This little boy spotted a television in a shop window in 1948, and the photographer captured the awe that he experienced.
Usually when you hear that a tornado is heading your way, you want to get out of there as fast as possible. This woman had a different reaction, deciding instead to pose in front of the huge, impressive twister.
This photograph was taken in 1989, and no, she’s not actually standing in front of a green screen – that’s a real tornado behind her! The tornado looks pretty far away, but those winds are moving fast and we hope she got out of there in time.
Photographer Steve McCurry captured this famous shot while photographing refugees in Afghanistan in 1984. He was observing and taking pictures of a girl’s school in a refugee camp when he spotted Sharbat Gula, a young girl with piercing eyes whose name he learned years later.
She was shy, so McCurry photographed some of the other children, hoping that she wouldn’t want to be left out. Finally, he got the photograph he wanted, and it was even more powerful than he had expected, due to the girl’s haunting expression.
Phone booth challenge
There are all sorts of challenges going around on social media these days, but the idea of taking part in silly challenges is nothing new. In the 1950s, it was popular to see how many people you could stuff into one upright phone booth.
People all over the world participated, and in 1959, a record 25 people managed to squeeze inside a phone booth, setting the record. The guys pictured here really went for it – there must be at least 15 people in there!
Man on the moon
Buzz Aldrin was the lunar module pilot on Apollo 11, and the second man on the moon. He stepped onto the lunar surface just minutes after Neil Armstrong took his famous first steps on the moon on July 20, 1969.
However, since Armstrong was the guy with the camera, the most iconic images feature Aldrin. This memorable photograph shows Aldrin standing still in the distant landscape, with the reflection of Armstrong and the lunar module visible in his visor.
Rush for chocolate
During World War II, many items were rationed both in the United States and in Europe, in order to support the war effort. In England, sugar was rationed until 1953. Understandably, children couldn’t wait to get their hands on some sweets.
The first day that candy was freely available, people rushed into candy stores in order to satisfy their sweet tooth. This picture captures that moment in 1953 when children all over England lined up to finally get some candy.
This photograph was taken in 1984, early on in Michael Jordan’s career. Photographer Jacobus “Co” Rentmeester snapped the shot of the great basketball player in mid air for LIFE magazine. What really made the image famous, however, was Nike using the silhouetted image as inspiration for a new symbol – “Jumpman”.
This began a new era in which athletes became commercial property that could be used for marketing and advertising. Nike’s Air Jordan brand became extremely profitable and Michael Jordan went on to become known as the best basketball player ever.
Today, selfies are everywhere. You can’t scroll through Instagram or Facebook without coming across these pictures that your friends take of themselves everywhere they go.
However, before cell phone cameras and even before digital cameras, taking a selfie required a bit more preparation. This picture, taken in 1938, is believed to be one of the first selfies in existence. Singer Frank Sinatra took a photo of himself in a mirror when he was just 17 years old, creating this iconic shot.
The ascension of Queen Elizabeth
Queen Elizabeth is the longest ruling monarch in British history, but when she was young, she didn’t expect to become Queen. Her grandfather was King, with her uncle Edward next in the line of succession.
Everyone expected that he would marry and produce an heir. However, King Edward VIII abdicated the throne due to his desire to marry a divorced woman, putting Elizabeth’s father King George VI on the throne. In 1952 King George passed away, and Princess Elizabeth became Queen Elizabeth.
Marilyn Monroe in a potato sack
We have all seen the famous picture of actress Marilyn Monroe posing in a white dress over a subway grate, but this picture has a more interesting story behind it. In 1951, Monroe was criticized after wearing a scandalous red dress.
A columnist said that she looked “cheap and vulgar,” and that she would have looked better in a potato sack. So, she decided to get back at him by wearing a potato sack – and still managing to look stunning while doing it.
On his 72nd birthday, Nobel prize winner Albert Einstein apparently got sick of smiling for photographs. Instead, the scientist did what many of us have done sometime in our lives and stuck out his tongue.
The picture, captured by photographer Arthur Sasse, became one of the most iconic photographs of the century. Einstein himself reportedly loved the picture too, and ordered nine copies of it for himself. After his death, Einstein’s estate licensed the photo for publication, but it was nearly left out because editors weren’t sure it was appropriate.
Neil Leifer is one of the best known sports photographers out there. He photographed Muhammad Ali over 50 times throughout his career, and captured several iconic photos of the boxer. This photo was taken in 1965, when 23-year-old Ali fought Sonny Liston.
Just one minute and 44 seconds into the match, Ali delivered a punch to Liston’s chin. Liston fell to the ground, and Ali yelled at him to “get up and fight.” That’s when Leifer snapped the shot, immortalizing the moment forever.
New York’s first skyscraper
The New York City skyline is full of skyscrapers today, but back when it was first built, there was just the Empire State Building. Tourists visited the city just to see the massive tower.
The 102 story, 1,250 ft. skyscraper was completed in 1931, and was the tallest building in the world for almost 40 years. In this picture, which was taken in 1941, the Empire State Building towers above everything around it, giving it an almost eerie, science fiction feeling.
In 2007, Major Terri Gurrola deployed to Iraq, leaving her two-year-old daughter Gaby at home. Gurrola wrote that leaving her little girl was the hardest thing that she’s ever had to do, and her biggest fear was that Gaby would forget who she was.
When Gurrola came home for her two-week mid-tour break, Gaby was in the airport waiting for her. When Gurrola saw her daughter, she dropped to her knees crying and pulled Gaby close. Nearly everyone who witnessed the scene was brought to tears, too.
When World War II ended in August 1945, photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt decided to photograph the festivities and celebrations that were happening in the New York City streets. When a young sailor in front of Eisenstaedt started kissing every woman he saw, Eisenstaedt patiently waited for the right moment.
Then, when the sailor grabbed a nurse dressed in white and kissed her on the lips, Eisenstaedt quickly snapped the shot. It appeared the following day in newspapers around the country, and quickly became famous.
Having your picture taken used to be a whole ordeal. You couldn’t simply hand your camera phone to a friend and ask them to capture the moment. No, you had to hire a professional, sit still, and let them do their work. This 19th century couple did just that.
However, even though the photograph was supposed to be formal, the pair couldn’t stop themselves from breaking into laughter. It’s so reminiscent of modern photo booth pictures that we identify with these people from a completely different time and place.
This photograph doesn’t capture any remarkable people or events, and yet it is one of the most expensive photos ever sold. The picture, titled 99 Cent, is stitched together from several images that Andreas Gursky photographed in a 99 Cents Only store in Los Angeles, California in 1999.
The colors and lines in the image made the ordinary, everyday shop look like a work of art. When the picture went to auction in 2006, it was sold for a whopping $2.3 million.
Dorothea Lange gave a face to the struggles of the United States Great Depression with this photograph, called Migrant Mother. Lange was traveling in the west of the country in order to document the suffering caused by the Depression.
When she spotted Frances Owens Thompson, she knew she had found her subject. She photographed the woman with her children, capturing the worry in her eyes. To this day, Migrant Mother is one of the most recognized pictures of the Depression.
This crazy photograph is so iconic that it has made its way onto dorm room posters in colleges around the United States. The picture of 11 men enjoying their lunch 840 feet above the ground was taken in Manhattan in 1932.
The workers posed on the 69th floor of the RCA Building for a promotional campaign, looking completely relaxed and unafraid of the huge drop below their feet. Titled Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, the photograph became immensely popular and has been reproduced on all sorts of merchandise, too.
There is a lot that went on behind the scenes of this 2014 Oscars selfie. Ellen Degeneres, who was hosting the event, decided to take a selfie and tweet it out in the middle of the broadcast.
After trading in her iPhone for a Samsung device (since Samsung was a sponsor of the evening), Ellen went into the audience to take a selfie with Meryl Streep. Suddenly, lots of other stars joined in, and Bradley Cooper grabbed the camera. The resulting picture literally broke Twitter for a few minutes.
The first cell phone picture
This picture may not look like much, but it had an immense impact on the world. This grainy photograph of a newborn baby is actually the first cell phone photograph ever taken.
Philippe Kahn had nothing to do while he was waiting for his wife to give birth in a maternity ward in 1997. So, he started playing around with a flip-phone and a digital camera. Using a few lines of code, he synched the devices so that he could instantly send a photograph of his newborn baby.
The Loch Ness monster
For six decades, this photograph was believed by many to be evidence of the infamous Loch Ness Monster. It was taken in 1934 by a doctor named Robert Kenneth Wilson, and published in the Daily Mail.
When it was analyzed later on, however, most people agreed that it was a fake. In 1994 a group of documentary filmmakers inspected the uncropped image and found evidence that it was actually being towed through the water, leading to a consensus that the photograph is a hoax.
The album artwork for the Beatles’ album Abbey Road is one of the most famous images of all time. It has been recreated by many people and can be seen on all sorts of merchandise from posters to mugs to T-shirts.
The picture was based on a sketch by Paul McCartney and was taken in the morning on August 8, 1969. While a policeman stopped traffic, photographer Iain Macmillan stood on a stepladder and shot six frames. He had only ten minutes to get the photo.
In today’s world where Photoshop is available to anyone who wants to give photo editing a try, a picture like this would not be so difficult to create. However, back in 1948 when photographer Philippe Halsman captured this shot of famous painter Salvador Dalí, it wasn’t so easy.
Halsman suspended the easel in the air with thin wires and, with the help of his wife and daughter, threw the cats and water bucket into the frame. Dalí himself had to jump into the air at exactly the right moment.
In 1968, Apollo 8 became the first manned mission that successfully orbited the moon. On December 24, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders came around the far side of the moon in their spacecraft and saw a beautiful sight – their home planet, a blue and white sphere, was rising over the moon’s surface.
Anders quickly took a photograph in black and white while Lovell hurried to find color film to capture the full effect. Luckily for all of us, he succeeded, and this striking image is the result.