The cliché goes that “a picture is worth a thousand words,” but some photographs eschew any such numeric limitation and go on talking to us forever; certain photo portraits have that rare power. Far more than pictorial representations of celebrated or instantly recognizable figures, they capture so much more, seeming to encapsulate not simply the very essence of the person in shot but all they have come to stand for – the attitudes, beliefs and values of an entire era. Here are ten photographs of iconic individuals which triumph in communicating in myriad and immeasurable ways.
10. Salvador Dali, Dali’s Mustache
Spanish surrealist artist Salvador Dali epitomized eccentricity in both his life and his work, and it is his penchant for the strikingly bizarre that is so brilliantly captured in this image by the great Latvian-American portrait photographer, Philippe Halsman. Halsman worked with Dali in the 1940s, and their collaborations were compiled in the 1954 book, Dali’s Mustache, in which over thirty different images of the artist’s flamboyant facial hair can be found – including this famous version. As well as the popular painter’s distinctive upturned waxed mustache – almost as iconic as his art – the shot shows Dali’s facial expression at its oddball best, eyes wide, seeming to stare at the viewer as if from around a corner. A perfect testimony for probably the 20th century’s most popular artist-celebrity, a man at once disdainfully aloof and anxious for public attention in all that he did.
9. Marilyn Monroe, The Seven Year Itch
Blond, curvaceous and beautiful, Marilyn Monroe epitomized the American female sex symbol. No other starlet has reached her iconic status in the popular imagination, and no other photo captures her sensuous yet innocently seductive power better than this one, snapped by Matty Zimmerman in 1954. Famously taken as Monroe posed over a Manhattan subway vent while in character for The Seven Year Itch, the picture shows the actress laughing as her skirt billows about her, blown up by a blast of warm air from below. Hundreds of photographers’ flashbulbs went off at the location of the midnight scene, leaving Monroe’s watching husband Joe DiMaggio enraged about the media spectacle. The couple were divorced just weeks later, but the movie was a highlight of Monroe’s career, and this shot captured her still radiant, eight years prior to her “probable suicide.”
8. Winston Churchill, The Roaring Lion
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is seen as one of the great wartime leaders and a strategist who made possible the Allied victory in World War Two. However, his personal qualities – his bullishness and his belligerence – were just as key to prevailing over the Nazis. It is this essence of defiance that the 1941 picture by acclaimed Canadian portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh succeeds in capturing. The shot of the scowling statesman with his hand on his hip was taken in the House of Commons in Ottawa, where Churchill had just given an address. The story goes that Karsh angered his subject – already irritated at having not been told of the shoot – by taking the lit cigar from his lips after Churchill had refused to remove it himself. Churchill’s expression did the rest, rendering him the personification of war-torn Britain – The Roaring Lion, as the photo was titled. One of the most famous photo portraits ever, it is also said to be the most widely reproduced.
7. Muhammad Ali, “Get up!”
When Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston in the first round of their 1965 rematch with what would become known as the “phantom punch,” the incident would go down as one of the most controversial in boxing history, as many suspected Liston had thrown the fight due to threats from the Nation of Islam, or in order to take a payoff. Nevertheless, more enduring than any cries of ‘fix!’ was this image, which shows Ali standing over his laid out opponent, screaming at him to “Get up and fight, sucker!” The scene was snapped by legendary sports photographer Neil Leifer at the ringside, and the picture seems to encapsulate everything the passionate, outspoken champion Ali was about. While not a typical photo portrait, it remains the single most iconic image of the man who proclaimed, “I’m the greatest,” and the most famous and heavily publicized sports photo in history.
6. Ernest Hemingway, Papa Bear
This famous photo of American literary giant Ernest Hemingway is another by the great portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh. Karsh’s mastery of lighting is shown in the picture of ‘Papa Bear,’ a shot that somehow seems to mirror the stark minimalism of the writer’s prose and capture the sense of both melancholy and raw adventure that figured in his life. The portrait, taken at Hemingway’s home near Havana in 1957, offers a window into the soul of the big bearded man with elevated eyes wearing a rollneck sweater; a man both intensely imaginative and highly athletic; “A man,” recalled Karsh, “of peculiar gentleness, the shyest of men I ever photographed.” Tortured by alcoholism and ailing physical and mental health, Hemingway blew his brains out with a shotgun in 1961. Is the anguish of his world-weary existence expressed in this photo as it was in the words of his books?
5. Marlon Brando, The Wild One
While it may look camp today, back in 1954 this image symbolized youth rebellion in the extreme, and it is also arguably the most famous picture of Marlon Brando – the mercurial method actor who set new standards for presence on the big screen. It was the publicity shot used on the poster for outlaw biker movie The Wild One, a landmark in cinema history in which Brando starred with his brooding portrayal of gang leader Johnny Strabler. The image of a young punk astride a Triumph Thunderbird motorcycle became iconic, a distillation of all the movie represented with its depiction of a violent subculture whose roaming protagonists could take over towns. Highly controversial at the time over claims that such anti-social behavior was being romanticized, the movie – and photo – kick-started a craze for leather jackets and macho attitudes. The biker counter-culture was born.
4. Jim Morrison, American Poet
One of rock music’s most well-known frontmen, Jim Morrison has left a legacy that refuses to die, and his music aside, none of this is captured better than in this 1967 black-and-white photograph by Joel Brodsky. The shot was taken in New York as part of ‘The Young Lion’ series, the photos of which were used on the covers of The Doors’ first two records, as well as many books, compilation albums and other merchandise. Morrison, a self-styled enigma, died of a drug overdose in a Paris apartment in 1971, but this instantly recognizable image shows him at the peak of his artistic powers and still in great physical shape – a sex symbol and a music icon audiences went wild for. In the portrait of the American Poet, we see the singer bare-chested, arms outstretched, drunken, charismatic eyes gazing into the camera lens – intoxicating an already turned on generation.
3. Albert Einstein, Sticking His Tongue Out
Perhaps the greatest mind of the 20th century, Einstein needs no introduction: the proponent of the general theory of relativity shook the very foundations of physics and lay the foundations for the Atomic Age. This is perhaps his most famous photographic portrait, an image that captures the moment the man synonymous with genius stuck his tongue out at photographer Arthur Sasse, thereby capturing so much more. It is a photo that has helped crystallize Einstein’s image as the brilliant yet nutty scientist in the popular consciousness, yet it also shows his human side: the Princeton professor celebrating his 72nd birthday with the irreverence to poke fun at the trailing cameras rather than smile for the fiftieth time. It reveals the rebel in Einstein, a true personality who escaped Nazi Germany in 1933 and who was feeling the chill of the McCarthyite climate at the time the picture was taken. The original was sold for $74,324 in 2009.
2. Florence Owens Thompson, Migrant Mother
A portrait iconic due to the fact that its subject is not a celebrated figure, documentary photographer Dorothea Lange’s picture of a 32-year old mother of seven became a key symbol of the Great Depression and one of America’s most famous photos. Taken at a pea pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California in 1936 the shot (one of six) of the weather-worn woman, with near-despair etched into her face, alerted a nation to the plight of its people – focusing their suffering, and their strength. The image was reproduced in the press, prompting the federal authorities to send in food to the thousands of starving workers stuck where the picture was taken. However, the relief arrived too late for the widow and her young family; they had already moved on. Though she remained anonymous at the time, in 1976 Florence Owens Thompson revealed herself as the face of the photo that had defined an era.
1. Che Guevara, Guerrillero Heroico
No photo portrait is more iconic than that of Marxist revolutionary Che Guevara. It has been hailed as the 20th century’s most famous photograph, but more than this, it has become part of the fabric of our visual language. The image captures many possible emotions in the 31-year-old Guevara’s searching yet defiant expression, according to photographer and lifelong communist Alberto Korda including anger, pain, stoicism, and an “absolute implacability.” The picture was taken in Cuba after a memorial speech by his comrade Fidel Castro after the 1960 La Coubre explosion, with Guevara snapped twice just before he vanished from view. Cropped, it would become not simply the mythic hero’s most celebrated portrait, but a meta-symbol of revolution and the global spirit of unrest. Long after Guevara’s execution in 1967, modified versions were endlessly reproduced in posters and other media, to the point where its commodification appears to mock the ideals it once represented.