The Ten Most Iconic LIFE Magazine Photos

On November 23, 1936, the first issue of the pictorial magazine Life is published. The magazine quickly established itself as the home of iconic photography.  Here are the 10 most iconic LIFE Magazine photos...


Tank Man in Tienanmen Square A lone man stands in front of a line of tanks, preventing them from moving forward. This simple image has become one of the best-known photos of the 20th century, and possibly in the history of photography. The photo was taken in 1989 in Tienanmen Square in Beijing during the student protests that ultimately led to a major crackdown on human rights. The photo used in LIFE Magazine was taken by Jeff Widener, who was stuck in his hotel, dealing with a concussion from being hit with a rock earlier. Widener was not the only photographer who managed to photograph the scene; Stuart Franklin, for example, also got a shot for the agency Magnum Photos, and his film was smuggled out of China by a French student, who hid the photo among some containers of tea.

Reaching Out (Vietnam War) Sometimes photos don't reach the public for a few years, and the Reaching Out photo is one of those. Taken in 1966, it didn't hit the pages of LIFE Magazine until 1971. The picture, taken during the Vietnam War by Larry Burrows, shows Machine Gunnery Sargeant Jeremiah Purdie reaching toward a wounded soldier resting on the ground. Purdie himself is wounded, with a bloody bandage wrapped around his head. The picture became one of the best windows into what soldiers were experiencing in Vietnam.


Man on the Moon Taken by Neil Armstrong as he and Buzz Aldrin stood on the moon on July 20, 1969, this photo remains one of the most iconic in human history. This was the first time humans had stood on the moon's surface (conspiracy theories aside). Aldrin is shown standing in a shallow depression, looking toward Armstrong, reflections visible in his helmet's face shield. Time reports that while Aldrin wasn't happy being the second man to step on the moon,  he did get to be the man on the moon viewers saw because Armstrong was behind the camera.

Martin Luther King Jr. at a D.C. Rally in 1957 Another picture that didn't appear for years was a photo of Martin Luther King Jr. taken in 1957, standing in front of a crowd at the Prayer Pilgrimage for Freedom in Washington, D.C. King's back is to the camera manned by Paul Schutzer, with his arms outstretched and the Washington Monument in the background. The photo was not run until April 1968, after Dr. King had been assassinated. However, it became one of the better-known photos of King as it showed both Dr. King and the scale of the crowd at one of the earlier Civil Rights rallies in the country.

Gandhi and His Spinning Wheel Margaret Bourke-White's 1946 photo of Mohandas Gandhi sitting on his floor reading, with his spinning wheel in the foreground, is one of the more indelible images taken of the leader. Gandhi practiced spinning while he was in prison and kept spinning his own cloth after his release. Spinning became so important to Gandhi that Bourke-White was instructed to learn to spin before she could take the photo. The photo ran in 1948, after Gandhi's assassination.

Black Power Salute at the 1968 Olympics When Tommie Smith and John Carlos stood on the podium to accept medals at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics after winning sprinting competitions, they made a political statement that was simple but powerful. Both men raised one arm, hand making a fist, in the Black Power salute. They made the gesture as a statement showing that all wasn't as well as people thought and that struggles continued at home. Tommie Smith also removed his shoes and stood in socks, a symbolic gesture meant to represent African-American poverty. The picture was taken by John Dominis.

The VJ Day Kiss Alfred Eisenstadt's 1945 photo of a sailor grabbing a nurse and kissing her in Times Square in New York as VJ Day was announced is a classic image from World War II. The photo is actually controversial because, if you look closely, you see the kiss wasn't exactly mutual. The nurse has her hand curled into a fist, wedged in between her and the sailor, and many have come to see the photo as one of sexual assault. Greta Zimmer Friedman, the woman in the photo, said there actually wasn't that much to the kiss itself, as passionate as it looked on film.

Graham W. Jackson Sr. and Goin' Home Chief Petty Officer Graham Jackson is depicted in Ed Clark's 1945 photo playing an accordion and weeping openly as President Franklin D. Roosevelt's casket passes by. The song Jackson played was Goin' Home, and the photo came to represent the link between FDR and the fight for civil rights. However, Jackson had actually played music for FDR several times before FDR's death, so he was mourning a truly personal loss.

Marlboro Man Clarence Long, or C.H. Long, was a Texas cowboy immortalized in a LIFE Magazine photo by Leonard McCombe in 1949. The picture is simple -- just a shot of Long's face looking past the camera, cigarette dangling from his mouth -- but it inspired the Marlboro Man image used to promote cigarettes for years.

Audience Watching a 3D Movie 3D movies nowadays are distinctly different from the versions shown in the 1950s, but one photo from that time will likely represent the genre forever. J.R. Eyerman's photo, taken in November 1952 at the premiere of Bwana Devil, the first full-length movie filmed in color 3D, shows an audience all wearing identical 3D glasses, with the glasses seeming to take over their identities. The glasses are the first thing you notice, and you have to really look to start distinguishing audience members from one another. That didn't really concern anyone; instead, the audience members reported that the movie wasn't that good and that wearing the glasses for that long was kind of uncomfortable.