There are millions of wonderful photographs out there. There are many websites which celebrate great iconic photographs of the 20th century. However, future civilizations, looking back, will find only one that accurately ranks the top ten. You can probably guess which one. Remarkably, I have not only zeroed in on the top ten, but I've gotten the order right as well. That wasn't easy. I welcome your comments and dissent, but how can you argue with future civilizations.
10) Ruby assassination. Although there is some excellent work showing that Oswald acted alone (I haven't read Bugliosi's tome but can recommend Gerald Posner's Case Closed), but, we will likely never outlive the conspiracy theories. I have to admit, without knowing a single fact implicating Vice President LBJ or showing that he had a murderous bone in his body, having read Caro's political masterpieces, I admit to entertaining unsupportable fantasies (to weak to call them suspicions) that he had the ambition, organizational ability, professional motive (becoming president), personal motive (his humiliation by the Kennedy's while VP) and personal depravity (just read the books) that make me think that he just might contemplate such a thing. Let me put it this way - if there were suddenly evidence, I'd say "I knew it." So would a lot of people. Coupled with Oswald's Texas association (like LBJ), the place of the assassination (Texas) and Oswald's killing by a man in Texas who was soon to die himself, well. . . it is still just a fantasy. There is a picture from the rear of JFK's vehicle which would probably make a top 50 list, but I didn't find any that made the top ten. But, Oswald's execution by Jack Ruby, seen by millions on television, does make the list. It is a rare moment on film catching the shooter, victim and act at the moment. The recoil and look on one of Oswald's escorts is worth the top ten list alone.
9) Ali knocking out Liston. Ali was at one time at least, the most recognizable figure in the world, known by more people than world leaders. He was, maybe still is, incredibly photogenic and a ham beyond words. Few thought Ali had much of a shot against the tough and intimidating Liston, who had won the championship in a one round knockout, and the betting odds were 7-1 against Ali. I don't know if he was striking a pose at the moment this photograph was taken (knockout in the second fight while he was screaming for Liston to get up), but he couldn't have chosen better himself. Many think that second fight was fixed including a number of very respected former champions. Liston, with a colorful criminal history, was quite an interesting character himself, much more so than people know or remember. But, that's for another day.
8) Albert Einstein - Probably the person in modern history most closely associated in our minds with the word genius. "Who do you think you are - Einstein?" He was an unusual man too, famously unorthodox and uncaring about appearance. Here, in his classic photograph, he mugs for the camera on his 72nd birthday, being tired of smiling. Instant classic. He gave away a signed copy he retained that was later sold for almost $75,000.
7) John John - This is also a Kennedy assassination photograph. Where the Oswald killing merely brings back memories or is shocking, this one stirs your emotions in a much different way. A little boy saluting his father as he passes, no matter who it is, tugs the heart strings. Even knowing his mom told him to do it doesn't change it at all. By all accounts a nice guy, the knucklehead continued the history of family tragedy, dying in a plane crash, flying when he shouldn't have. Those Kennedys. Oy.
6)Sailor kissing girl - Just this year they located the sailor who kissed the girl in this iconic photograph celebrating Truman's announcement of the end of the war with Japan. It has long been controversial who the couple was. Maybe it still is but I favor the choice of George Mendonça and a stranger, Greta Friedman. Actually, in the photo is George's brand new girlfriend. They were on their first date. She says she never minded the spontaneous kiss. I'm pretty sure that's so because she married him later and they have made it work for over 65 years. The photo is by Alfred Eisenstaedt, already famous. But this was undoubtedly his most renowned.
5) Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe is herself in the top ten of iconic figures of the 20th century. She is dead some 50 years and still almost any adult from any generation can recognize her instantly. This picture is actually from a movie, The Seven Year Itch, in which she starred with Tom Ewell. Ewell was more of a stage actor and claims he never even saw any of his films. Even the dress is famous. The dress designer, William Travilla, already an Oscar winner, claims to have had an affair with Marilyn too. And, she can't deny it. Not that it matters, but I'm skeptical.
4) Afghan Girl
It's the eyes, no doubt. That has to be the reason this picture of a then nameless, probably 12 year old Afghan girl is so mesmerizing. A refugee in Pakistan during the Soviet invasion, the 1984 picture made the cover of National Geographic the next year. She didn't see it, of course, and remained the peasant girl she was. In 2002, she was found, and was surprised to learn she was world famous. She is long married and has three surviving daughters. Being found has come with a few financial rewards and though initially reluctant, she, Sharbat Gula, and the photographer, Steve McCurry, now supposedly keep in touch, though I'm not sure how.
3) Napalm girl
Another girl, this one even younger - but what a different story the photo tells. Burned by napalm, the poor Vietnamese child, age 9, runs down the road screaming "Too hot, too hot!" naturally, in Vietnamese. She had ripped off her own clothes off. The nudity almost caused the picture not to ever be published. If you don't feel pity looking at it, something is wrong with you. The photographer, Nick Ut, took her and other children to the hospital. Later she, Kim Phuc, and her new husband sought and received asylum in Canada while she was traveling as a medical student. She is now a Canadian citizen and runs a foundation for children injured by war. Who better?
2) Tank Man
Obviously, most great photographs involve some aspect of war or violence. This one too. There are several photographs of the same scene as it was caught on camera. Who he is (or was?) is completely unknown, as is his fate. But, what the picture represents is immortal. Courage in the face of overwhelming power - the compassion, perhaps confusion, of the tank operator - the realization of Copeland's Fanfare for the Common Man. Of the ten, this one is my personal favorite.
1) Iwo Jima flag raising
But, it was not the most iconic, which has to go to the staged photo of American soldiers raising the flag on Iwo Jima. Clint Eastwood made two movies about this long and brutal battle for a small otherwise worthless island. Not great films, but worth seeing.
Runner ups. There are other candidates, like the Space Shuttle disaster and a couple of
Beatle covers (The Abbey Road cover would be my number 11) and even Elvis strumming his guitar. None of them crack the top ten for me. If you have a suggestion, let me know. Sometimes I am forced to revise.