The 25 Photos That Defined the Modern Age

A group of experts met to discuss the images that have best captured — and changed — the world since 1955.

Article by By M.H. Miller, Brendan Embser, Emmanuel Iduma and Lucy McKeon

A collage of some of the most significant photographs.A collage of some of the most significant photographs.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Of the dozens of photographers not represented here that a reasonable person might expect to have been included, the most conspicuous absentees include Berenice Abbott, Ansel Adams, Robert Adams, Richard Avedon, Dawoud Bey, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Imogen Cunningham, Roy DeCarava, William Eggleston, Walker Evans, Robert Mapplethorpe, Helmut Newton and Irving Penn. Putting together a list of the 25 most significant photographs since 1955 — both fine art photos and reportage — proved a difficult task for the panelists (even the chosen time frame was controversial). They were: the Canadian conceptual photographer Stan Douglas, 63; the Vietnamese American photographer An-My Lê, 64; the acting chief curator of Photography at the Museum of Modern Art, Roxana Marcoci, 66; the American documentary photographer Susan Meiselas, 75; the American photographer Shikeith, 35; and Nadia Vellam, 51, T’s photo and video director. Each participant (including myself, the moderator, 36) submitted up to seven possible nominees for the list. We gathered at The New York Times Building on a morning last February (with Shikeith joining on video from a shoot in Los Angeles) to begin our deliberations.

We chose judges from the realms of both fine art and reportage because, increasingly, the line between the two has collapsed. The modern age has been defined by photographs — images that began their lives in newspapers or magazines are repurposed as art; art has become a vehicle for information. Therefore, it was important to us and our jurors that we not draw boundaries between what was created as journalism and what was created as art. What was important was that the photographs we chose changed, in some way, how we see the world.

The experts having a meeting.
Clockwise from left: Nadia Vellam, T’s photo and video director; the photographer An-My Lê; the photographer Susan Meiselas; M.H. Miller, the features director of T; the MoMA curator Roxana Marcoci; and the artist Stan Douglas. Not pictured: Shikeith. Photograph by Chase C. Middleton.

The conversation naturally turned into a series of questions. Like how important was it for a photograph to have expanded the possibilities of the medium? And how much did it matter who took a photo and what their intentions were? The list that emerged is less concerned with a historical chronology or an accepted canon than it is with a set of themes that have been linked indelibly to the photographic medium since its inception: labor and activism; war; the self and the family. Intriguingly, beyond an image by Wolfgang Tillmans from the ’90s, fashion photography is largely absent. So, too, are many world historical events that have been captured in landmark photographs, including the assassination of JFK, the fall of the Berlin Wall and anything from the pandemic lockdown or the presidency of Donald Trump. There were just too many other photographs to consider.

The process of producing the final list was clearly not scientific. It was more of a debate among a certain group of people on a certain day and is best considered that way. At the end of nearly four hours, jittery from caffeine, the group stood before a pile of crumpled masterworks on the floor as we assembled our chosen 25 images on a conference table. Many of our questions weren’t resolved (indeed, are unresolvable), but the results — which aren’t ranked but rather presented in the order in which we discussed them — are nothing if not surprising. — M.H. Miller

The conversation has been edited and condensed.

M.H. Miller: I thought we should start by talking about the time frame we settled on, starting in 1955.

Stan Douglas: It’s an agenda.

Miller: A little bit. It certainly shows an American bias, so I apologise to our Canadian representative — 1955 is really the beginning of the American civil rights movement, an era from which a number of us nominated photographs, and photography was so important in just making people aware of what was going on in the country. An-My, you chose Robert Frank’s picture of a streetcar in New Orleans, taken that year.

Robert Frank’s “Trolley — New Orleans” (1955).
Robert Frank’s “Trolley — New Orleans” (1955). Photograph by © the June Leaf and Robert Frank Foundation, from “The Americans”.

Robert Frank used “Trolley — New Orleans” as the original cover of his influential photo book “The Americans,” first published in the United States in 1959. Frank, a Swiss émigré, spent two years traveling the States and capturing what he saw. In this photograph, two Black passengers sit at the rear of a New Orleans streetcar while four white passengers sit at the front; all look out from a row of windows, the mullions between them emphasising their strict separation. At the time of its publication, “The Americans” was considered by several critics to be a pessimistic, angry portrait of the country. (The magazine Popular Photography famously called it a “warped” and “wart-covered” depiction “by a joyless man.”) Many more viewers and artists, however, found inspiration in the direct, unromantic style pioneered by Frank, whose outsider status likely let him view America’s contradictions from a clarifying distance. He had “sucked a sad poem out of America onto film,” as Jack Kerouac wrote in an introduction to the book. This image, shot in the months before the Montgomery bus boycotts made segregation a national debate, showed America to itself, as if for the first time. The faces in the photographs, Kerouac wrote, don’t “editorialize or criticize, or say anything but ‘this is the way we are in real life.’” — Emmanuel Iduma

An-My Lê: I tried to look for things that spoke to me, but also spoke to a generation.

Douglas: If I had to choose a civil rights image, I wouldn’t choose this one. Great photograph. But something happening on the street would be more appropriate, I think, like the dog attacking protesters, or the photo with the firemen.

Roxana Marcoci: But this was the cover of “The Americans,” and it does happen in the street, actually. I think that what you’re saying is, it’s not a photojournalistic image.

Douglas: The most important thing to me is: does a photograph reveal a new reality, or reveal something that’s been hidden previously? I think that’s a key criterion for making it significant. What impact on the world can that image have? A European might not have recognised that this was happening in the U.S. Maybe a lot of Americans in the North didn’t realise this was happening in the U.S. And I love this photograph, so I’m very happy to keep it.

Mamie Till fixes her eyes on her dead son, as her fiancé, Gene Mobley, holding her, stares at the viewer. Emmett Till, 14, is laid out on a cot in a Chicago funeral home, his face disfigured and bloated. His mother allowed the photojournalist David Jackson to take this picture in September 1955, a few days after two white men had abducted and murdered Till while he was visiting relatives in Mississippi. Quickly acquitted by an all-white jury, the men would go on to sell their confession to Look magazine for $4,000. When this photo was published, first in Jet magazine and then in The Chicago Defender and other Black newspapers, it incited an unprecedented level of outrage in America over racial violence; Jet had to reprint the Sept. 15, 1955, issue in which it appeared because of high demand. For the same reason Mamie Till let this picture be taken, she chose to keep her son’s coffin open during the funeral. “The murder of my son has shown me that what happens to any of us, anywhere in the world, had better be the business of us all,” she said. An estimated 100,000 people came to view his body. Jackson’s photograph was a call to action for many, including Rosa Parks, who said she thought of Till when she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus later that same year. — E.I.

Ernest C. Withers’s photograph of Moses Wright, Emmett Till’s great-uncle, identifying his nephew’s killers in a Mississippi courtroom, September 1955
Ernest C. Withers’s photograph of Moses Wright, Emmett Till’s great-uncle, identifying his nephew’s killers in a Mississippi courtroom, September 1955. Photograph by Dr. Ernest C. Withers Sr./Bettmann/Getty Images

Miller: I feel like you can’t have this conversation, especially with the year we designated as the starting point, without talking about Emmett Till. There’s the devastating series of photographs of Till’s funeral. But there’s also the one from the trial — when Till’s great-uncle is identifying the men who murdered his nephew. The judge didn’t allow that photographer, Ernest C. Withers, to shoot in the courtroom. So it’s a miracle that the picture exists, and that it’s composed as well as it is when it had to be taken in secret. And it’s a moment where you saw a larger shift taking place. Up to that point in the South, a Black witness identifying white defendants in court was unheard-of.

Marcoci: The picture [of his body] was also about the power of the witness, right?

Susan Meiselas: Oh, for sure. Mamie Till and her insistence on an open coffin: how brave an act that was. And it ran in Jet and moved around the world.

Douglas: The issue for me with the trial picture is that it needs a paragraph to explain why we’re looking at it.

Marcoci: The courtroom was a travesty. They went free. But this, Mamie Till with her son, created a generation of Black activists.

Shikeith: I grew up in a predominantly Black neighbourhood in Philadelphia, and when we were learning about Black history in the fourth or fifth grade, that picture was brazenly shared with students. It was probably the first time I learned how powerful a photograph can be in having real material change in the world. It’s an image that I’ve lived with my [whole] life, and that’s impacted how I viewed the world and racism and its violence. It scares me. But, you know, it’s the truth. The truth can be very scary for a lot of us.

Miller: Shikeith, you also selected this Gordon Parks photograph, which is one of two colour images the group nominated from the 1950s and ’60s — and the second was taken from outer space.

Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama” (1956).
Gordon Parks, “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama” (1956). Photograph by © The Gordon Parks Foundation.

In 1956, Life magazine sent Gordon Parks to document the effects of Jim Crow segregation laws in the American South through the experiences of one extended family in Mobile, Ala. Parks was one of the few Black photojournalists to work for an establishment magazine at the time, and was known especially for his fashion photography, as is easily apparent from this image. For Life, he photographed everyday scenes — a church choir singing or children drinking from water fountains — intentionally capturing signs reading “White Only” or “Lots for Coloured.” “Department Store, Mobile, Alabama” (1956) was shot for the Life story, which ran at 12 pages under the title “The Restraints: Open and Hidden” but, for unknown reasons, it didn’t make the final edit, and it wasn’t published until 2012, when a five-volume collection of Parks’s photographs was released. “Department Store,” which, despite its title, was actually shot at the Saenger Theatre in Mobile, has since become a belated icon, one of the most memorable images in a career that also includes directing the 1971 film “Shaft.” Notable most of all for its vivid colour, a startling contrast to the predominantly black-and-white imagery from the civil rights era, the portrait depicts Joanne Thornton Wilson, then age 27, dressed in an ice-blue, A-line cocktail dress, with her young niece, Shirley Anne Kirksey, standing beneath the red neon “Coloured Entrance” sign behind the theatre. Wilson’s upright posture and outward gaze — peering in the opposite direction of the sign’s blue arrow — subtly signify defiance. But there’s an intimacy and vulnerability in the picture, too. In 2013, Wilson, who went on to become a high school teacher, told the art historian Maurice Berger that she regretted that the strap of her slip had visibly fallen. “Dressing well made me feel first class,” she said. “I wanted to set an example.” She had set an example, of course, which Parks had recorded with such clarity: Wilson also told Berger that she refused to take her niece through the “coloured” entrance. — Brendan Embser

Shikeith: I think what’s beautiful about this image is that it’s brilliantly composed — it uses beauty to draw you into a poignant moment in history, becoming a record of the Jim Crow laws in the Southern U.S. I tried to pick photographs that had an influence on me, and that I thought my mother would recognise, to indicate their influence on people who might operate outside of art history conversations. It [can be used as] a tool for educating even the youngest of minds about what marginalised communities went through.

Marcoci: I think that’s a great point: the pedagogical nature of photographs. In this picture, there’s the elegance and grace of these two figures, and then the ugliness of that “Coloured Entrance” sign. There’s such a tension between them.

Nadia Vellam: You don’t immediately realise the context because you’re so attracted to the two people in the image. It asks you to spend more time looking.

Douglas: It’s quite an exquisite picture. It’s basically an X, which draws your eye into the centre, which then takes you to that woman’s gaze outside the frame. Inside the frame, there’s something quite sweet. But outside — both beyond that door and out in the world that’s made that door — there’s something quite ugly.

Alberto Korda, “Guerrillero Heroico (Che Guevara)" (1960).
Alberto Korda, “Guerrillero Heroico (Che Guevara)" (1960). Photograph by © Alberto Korda, courtesy of the Alberto Korda Estate.

Julianne Moore: In my business, this is what we call an apple box. I stand on one if I’m shorter than the actor I’m working with. Le Corbusier created an object of desirability, but it’s something you could make yourself and use a million different ways. [The English furniture designer] Jasper Morrison did his own version. I have two in my house that were built by a grip to hold a certain kind of camera. A painter once said to me, “They’re sort of amazing. They look like a [Constantin] Brâncuși [sculpture].” It’s a simple object that reminds different people of different things. And while it’s sort of silly that the Corbusier version has become this untouchable museum piece, I like the fact that it’s just a box.

Delavan: I’m going to argue against it. You can’t say that Le Corbusier invented the box. My feeling is that he was basically reusing a thing that already existed.

Rafael de Cárdenas: I’m not defending it, but he did recontextualise it.

Antonelli: Even though I’ve never been a fan of this, I buy your argument. I had [the Italian architect and designer Achille] Castiglioni as a teacher. And he used to always say that redesign is a legitimate form of design — to take something that exists in the world and appropriate it and improve upon it.

Diane Arbus, “Boy With a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, N.Y.C., 1967.”
Diane Arbus, “Boy With a Straw Hat Waiting to March in a Pro-War Parade, N.Y.C., 1967.” Photograph by © The Estate of Diane Arbus

The boy in “Boy With a Straw Hat” doesn’t look like a typical Arbus subject. Wearing a prim collared shirt, bow-tie and boater hat, with one American flag at his side and another, much smaller one twisted into a bow on his lapel, the thin-lipped paradegoer seems like the paragon of anodyne conservatism. He’s nothing like the cross-dressers, carnival entertainers, nudists and others relegated to the margins of society that fascinated Arbus, whose work prompted one of the more protracted debates on the ethics of photography, as her images were so often said to skirt the lines of voyeurism and exploitation. Yet his steady gaze prompts a similar sense of unease in the viewer, as does the small pin on his jacket that reads Bomb Hanoi. “Boy With a Straw Hat” was the cover image of Artforum’s May 1971 issue, published two months before Arbus’s death by suicide at age 48. In 1972, when her posthumous MoMA retrospective drew record crowds, the art critic Hilton Kramer refuted the idea that she was merely capturing her subjects for the sake of spectacle; he argued that she collaborated with the people she photographed, and that that act of participation provided dignity — or at least authenticity — especially for those individuals who are shunned or otherwise invisible. Arbus herself once said that the “best thing is the difference. I get to keep what nobody needs.” — B.E.

Miller: A number of us nominated Diane Arbus photos.

Douglas: [I picked] the sitting room in Levittown [“Xmas Tree in a Living Room in Levittown, L.I., 1962”], which is one of those suburbs created in the postwar period that people could buy [homes in] with their G.I. Bill money, in which Black people couldn’t live. It’s a case of there [being] something outside the image, which is very powerful: The construction of this new suburban reality, while Emmett Till’s being killed.

Marcoci: I chose the “Giant” [“A Jewish Giant at Home With His Parents in the Bronx, N.Y., 1970.”], because this was one of the first pictures where I was really thinking, “Who is that person? What would it be like to be him?”

Meiselas: One of the things that photographs do is make us emotional. Some of Arbus’s most memorable pictures are the ones that make you feel more than think.

Vellam: I’d vote for “Giant” just because it spawned so many people’s idea of portraiture: Katy Grannan, Deana Lawson, Larry Sultan. Like this idea of going into a place — in her case, middle-class suburbia — that you may not even have spent any time in otherwise. I feel like that became its own genre: There’s so much photography that has come out of her idea of going into people’s homes.

Marcoci: If I were to choose just one Arbus, I’d probably choose “Boy With a Straw Hat”: A portrait of an individual that’s this very interesting collective portrait of America, too. There’s this tension between the innocent face and then those buttons: “God Bless America” and “Bomb Hanoi.”

Shikeith: He’s sort of the archetype for the Proud Boys. You can see that smirk on his face.

Meiselas: There were pictures from the R.N.C. [Republican National Convention] four years ago that looked so much like this.

Miller: Stan and An-My both nominated a very different kind of photograph from the Vietnam War era: Malcolm Browne’s picture of Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation.

Malcolm Browne’s photo of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức self-immolating on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963.
Malcolm Browne’s photo of the Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức self-immolating on a Saigon street on June 11, 1963. Photograph by Malcolm Browne/AP Photos.

The AP reporter Malcolm Browne was among the only photojournalists on the scene when the monk Thích Quảng Đức set himself on fire in 1963 in Saigon as an act of protest against the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of the Buddhist majority. As flames engulfed Quảng Đức, hundreds of monks surrounded him, mourning while he burned. The photo, sent out as soon as possible on a commercial flight to reach the AP’s offices, was published on front pages internationally the following morning. When President John F. Kennedy saw it, he reportedly exclaimed, “Jesus Christ!” and then ordered a review of his administration’s Vietnam policy. (He would later say, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”) Browne would share the 1964 Pulitzer Prize for international reporting with David Halberstam of The New York Times. The photograph contributed to the collapse of support for the South Vietnamese president Ngô Đình Diệm, who was assassinated in a coup that year. President Kennedy was assassinated just a few weeks later, and his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, would escalate the war. Browne’s photograph, which is newly resonant today, enshrined the act of self-immolation as the most extreme form of protest. — Lucy McKeon

Lê: I think it’s one of the most incredible monuments that exists as a photograph. [It documents] an extraordinary act of sacrifice for a cause. These days, you see [some] people protesting, and it’s all about their egos. And here, there’s no ego. It’s one of the few pictures I know that’s so violent and peaceful at the same time.

Douglas: He was there for five minutes, apparently, burning, and just didn’t flinch, didn’t say a word. This is what you do when you have no other recourse, when you feel the suppression is so severe that this is the only way you can get your statement heard.

Meiselas: It makes me think of the Napalm Girl, as well [Nick Ut’s 1972 image of Kim Phuc Phan Thi, age 9, fleeing a napalm attack in the village of Trảng Bàng]. That moment impacted a generation. The question is, which one mobilised us further?

Lê: The Napalm Girl picture, for me, represents the notion that all Vietnamese are victims of war. I started watching war movies in college, and every time the word “Vietnam” comes up, that is the image that people have in their mind. I think the monk speaks to [something] beyond himself. He’s not a victim.

William A. Anders’s “Earthrise,” as seen from beyond the lunar surface from Apollo 8, the first crewed spacecraft to circumnavigate the Moon.
William A. Anders’s “Earthrise,” as seen from beyond the lunar surface from Apollo 8, the first crewed spacecraft to circumnavigate the Moon. Photograph by NASA/William A. Anders.

On Christmas Eve 1968, aboard Apollo 8 during its pioneering orbit of the moon, William A. Anders photographed the Earth “rising” above the lunar horizon. The picture was the first of its kind — and it was also unplanned. Anders, the youngest of the three astronauts on the spacecraft, had been tasked with taking photographs of the moon’s craters, mountains and other geological features. He spontaneously decided, however, to include Earth in the frame when he noticed how beautiful it was. “Here was this orb looking like a Christmas tree ornament, very fragile,” Anders would recall in a NASA oral history. “And yet it was our home.” His first shot was in black and white. For the next, he switched to colour, which emphasised the contrast between the moon’s grey surface and the planet’s blue-green vibrancy. “Earthrise” was the first image most of humanity saw of the planet we live on, a nature photo like none before it and a reminder of how small our world really is, in comparison with the rest of the universe. As Joni Mitchell would sing of the image, on 1976’s “Refuge of the Roads”: “And you couldn’t see a city on that marbled bowling ball/Or a forest or a highway/Or me here least of all. …” — E.I.

Lê: “Earthrise” isn’t the first image of the Earth seen from space. There were earlier low-resolution ones in the ’40s, made from unmanned missiles or whatever. There was one made on Apollo 4, in 1967. But I think this one, taken by a crew member on Apollo 8 the next year with a Hasselblad, is important because it’s humbling: seeing the Earth in relationship to the Moon, and thinking about us not being the only people on this Earth. Perhaps this is when we started thinking about how we should take care of our home.

Miller: Stan, you nominated a later photo, “Sunset on Mars” (2005).

Douglas: I’ve always had this knee-jerk response to Apollo being American propaganda somehow, part of the arms race — who’s going to get [to the Moon] first, the U.S. or the Russians? And once the U.S. got there, they lost interest. It wasn’t really about exploration, but dominance. This image on Mars is something quite extraordinary, because in effect, the camera is a prosthesis. It’s both a very artificial one and a human one. We actually extend our vision through it.

Ernest C. Withers, “I Am a Man: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee” (1968).
Ernest C. Withers, “I Am a Man: Sanitation Workers Strike, Memphis, Tennessee” (1968). Photograph by © Dr. Ernest C. Withers, Sr., courtesy of the Withers Family Trust.

In the last weeks of his life, Martin Luther King Jr. took part in a protest of Black sanitation workers striking for safer conditions and decent wages in Memphis, Tenn. In a speech, King emphasised the connection between the United States’ civil rights battle and the struggles of poor and disenfranchised people worldwide, a message that resonated with the crowd. Their protest signs bore the phrase “I Am a Man,” a stark acknowledgment of all the ways this most basic fact was disrespected. “We were going to demand to have the same dignity and the same courtesy any other citizen of Memphis has,” one of the participants, James Douglas, recalled in a 1978 documentary titled “I Am a Man.” The defining photo of the strike was taken by the Black photojournalist Ernest C. Withers, a Memphis native who previously shot the trial of Emmett Till’s killers, and also made famous images of the Montgomery bus boycott, the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Ark. Withers’s picture became the official record of King’s last major civil rights action. Years later, however, Withers’s own story was revealed to have been more complicated. Like King, the photographer drew the attention of the F.B.I. Unlike King, he became a paid informant. Yet he continued to produce some of the most iconic images of the movement: On April 4, 1968, less than a week after taking this photo, Withers was on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel, photographing the blood stain at the scene of King’s assassination. — L.M.

Shikeith: I think I first saw this image around the time the Million Man March was happening [in 1995]. I have a greater understanding of manhood [now] and how much of it I want to align with, and how much I don’t. But I understand how vital the need to identify as a man was in that moment.

Meiselas: I love the contrast of “I am a man,” singular, and “I am a collective.” It’s just all there: perfect distance, perfect composition. Whether or not Withers was working for the F.B.I. …

Douglas: Was he?

Meiselas: Yeah.

Douglas: And his role was to just …

Meiselas: Report on his fellow men. They paid him to spy on his colleagues. It’s a dark story. But let’s not go there.

Blair Stapp’s portrait of Huey P. Newton, the full title of which is “The Racist Dog Policemen Must Withdraw Immediately From our Communities, Cease Their Wanton Murder and Brutality ...” (1968).
Blair Stapp’s portrait of Huey P. Newton, the full title of which is “The Racist Dog Policemen Must Withdraw Immediately From our Communities, Cease Their Wanton Murder and Brutality ...” (1968). Photograph by Yanker Poster Collection, Library of Congress

In the summer of 1968, outside of the Alameda County Courthouse in Oakland, Calif., where Huey P. Newton stood trial for the murder of a police officer, supporters held up posters of him that instantly became synonymous with the Black Panther Party. The year before, Newton, the party’s co-founder and Minister of Defense, had collaborated with fellow Panther Eldridge Cleaver and the photographer Blair Stapp to stage a portrait of himself in a black leather jacket and a tipped beret, holding a shotgun in one hand and a spear in the other. He’s seated on a rattan peacock chair that recalls chairs woven by inmates in the United States-colonised Philippines decades earlier. Its oval back piece frames Newton’s head like an oversize halo. Two Zulu warrior shields are propped against the wall. Stapp’s portrait and the peacock chair itself have since become an enduring symbol of Black Power. Michelle Obama sat in one for her 1982 prom portrait. Melvin Van Peebles recreated the photograph in his 1995 film “Panther.” The visual artist Sam Durant memorialised Newton in bronze in 2004, and Henry Taylor painted it in 2007. After two hung juries, the murder charges against Newton were dropped in 1971. For him, the struggle was about survival — or as he put it, “survival pending revolution.” — B.E.

Shikeith: I was trying to think of images that my grandmothers revered in a way. I think this is one of those images that exists in a lot of Black domestic spaces as a symbol for strength and determination. And it has this royal demeanor that’s been continuously emulated in Black photographic practice, whether amateur or professional.

Marcoci: The beret is almost [like] Che’s.

Shikeith: You can see people replicating this pose on the wicker chair throughout Black portraiture in the ’80s and early ’90s. I’m really interested in photographs that’ve had a long-lasting effect on our daily lives.

The cover of “Minamata: A Warning to the World ...” (1975), a book about the coastal city in Japan that was devastated by industrial pollution and includes “Tomoko in Her Bath” (1972).
The cover of “Minamata: A Warning to the World ...” (1975), a book about the coastal city in Japan that was devastated by industrial pollution and includes “Tomoko in Her Bath” (1972). Photograph by Chatto & Windus.

In the Magnum photojournalist W. Eugene Smith’s picture of Tomoko Kamimura, 15, she is being bathed by her mother at their home, in Minamata, Japan. Kamimura had been born with a kind of mercury poisoning that would later come to be known as Minamata disease, caused by a chemical factory contaminating the city’s water and food supply for more than 30 years. Smith and his wife, the photographer and activist Aileen M. Smith, lived in Minamata in the early 1970s, taking thousands of photographs to document the toll of the disaster — 1,784 people died after contracting the disease and thousands were left with severe neurological and musculoskeletal disabilities. Images from the series were printed by Life magazine in 1972, and Kamimura’s portrait became, for a time, one of the most famous images in the world. Amid the public outcry, “rumours began to circulate through the neighbourhood claiming that we were making money from the publicity,” Kamimura’s father, Yoshio, would later write, “but this was untrue — it had never entered our minds to profit from the photograph of Tomoko. We never dreamed that a photograph like that could be commercial.” The Chisso Corporation, which owned the factory, has paid damages to some 10,000 victims. Kamimura died in 1977, at the age of 21. Smith died the following year. Twenty years later, in accordance with the Kamimura family’s desire “to let Tomoko rest,” Aileen M. Smith decided to no longer allow the photograph to be reproduced. She has rarely granted permission since. — L.M.

Meiselas: Without this documentation by Eugene Smith, I don’t think Minamata and the mercury poisoning would ever have been confronted. So when you do choose to represent a victim, I hope it’s purposeful.

Douglas: I heartily agree. And it’s a beautiful image of a loving relationship between mother and daughter.

Vellam: Smith documented people, but he was also very conscious of what he was doing while he was documenting them. I think he took a very long time after he shot everyone to figure out what he even wanted to show from them.

Meiselas: He believed that they should be better understood.

A girl incarcerated by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, sometime between 1975 and 1979. Before killing the prisoners, the Khmer Rouge photographed, tortured and extracted written confessions from them.
A girl incarcerated by the Khmer Rouge at Tuol Sleng Prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, sometime between 1975 and 1979. Before killing the prisoners, the Khmer Rouge photographed, tortured and extracted written confessions from them. Photograph courtesy of © Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum

Some photographs, taken in the darkest moments of history, end up saying very different things from what their creators intended — like the images that Stalin’s secret police took during the Great Purge, or the ones white spectators took of lynchings in the United States. One of the more extensive photographic records of an authoritarian regime comes from the Khmer Rouge army, which controlled Cambodia from 1975 to 1979 and whose genocidal purges of minority groups and political opponents led to the murder of almost a quarter of the country’s population. Before killing most of its victims, the army took their portraits, in part to prove to leaders that the supposed enemies of the state were indeed being executed. Of the nearly 20,000 people sent between 1975 and 1979 to what was known as the S-21 death camp, the Khmer Rouge’s most notorious torture centre, only about a dozen survived. In 1994, the American nonprofit organisation Photo Archive Group cleaned and cataloged more than 5,000 photographs taken of prisoners before their executions. A selection of the images, known as “Photographs from S-21: 1975-79,” was published as a book called “The Killing Fields” in 1996 and shown at MoMA the following year. Who was the girl pictured here? What had she seen? It’s impossible to know. And yet the regime’s photographic record offers a way into humanizing and remembering the victims of one of the most ruthless atrocities of the 20th century. S-21 is now the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum, where a number of the images from “Photographs From S-21: 1975-1979” are on permanent display. — L.M.

Lê: So these pictures were found in an archive in Cambodia [in 1993]. After the Khmer Rouge took over [in 1975], they went on a rampage, killing teachers and anyone who they felt wasn’t one of theirs. The bodies were buried in different locations. But they photographed these people before killing them. There were thousands of these pictures.

Douglas: If you want to make them disappear, why do you document them?

Lê: But that’s the thing. It’s the banality of evil. It’s unconscionable, right? Civilians being just collateral damage in war. Perhaps there are other ways to speak about violence, and I think this [set of photographs] certainly does.

Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #21” (1978).
Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #21” (1978). Photograph courtesy of © Cindy Sherman, courtesy of the artist and Hauser & Wirth.

Cindy Sherman was 23 when she began making her “Untitled Film Stills,” a series of 70 black-and-white staged self-portraits that explore stereotypes of women in film and mass media. As a student at Buffalo State College, where she originally studied painting, she became fascinated by performers such as Vito Acconci and Chris Burden, artists who put their own bodies centre stage. Sherman also liked to dress up as stock characters for parties, purchasing clothes from flea markets and experimenting with cosmetics. In “Untitled Film Stills,” she plays the career girl, ingénue, librarian, mistress, femme fatale and runaway, alternately heartbroken, hung over, daydreaming or determined to escape a predator as though trapped in some film noir. But which film? That feeling of vague recognition was Sherman’s point, as well as that of other artists of the era experimenting with pictures from mass media, who would eventually be called the Pictures Generation, a name based on a 1977 exhibition curated by Douglas Crimp. They wanted viewers to almost recognise the images, so as to heighten the uncanny nature of their work. Sherman initially sold eight-by-ten prints from “Untitled Film Stills” for $50 out of a binder from her desk at her day job as a receptionist at the nonprofit gallery Artists Space in New York. Douglas Eklund, who organized a Pictures Generation exhibition in 2009, noted that the series “never ceases to astonish, as if Sherman knew how to operate all of the machinery of mass-cultural representation with one hand tied behind her back.” Her intuitive grasp of the self-portrait’s theatrical appeal, especially when that self could be manipulated — decades before anyone could have imagined camera filters on an iPhone — has kept “Untitled Film Stills” relevant ever since. — B.E.

Marcoci: There’s something about the “Untitled Film Stills.” It’s this relationship between still and moving images. Cindy Sherman has the capacity to encapsulate, in a single [work], a narrative. She calls on this pantheon of women’s roles from movies that we think we’ve seen, but none of them are based on an actual film still. There’s one [“Untitled Film Still #13,” 1978] where she looks like Brigitte Bardot in a head scarf from Jean-Luc Godard’s “Contempt” (1963), but she’s a librarian. She’s reaching for a book. She makes the Bardot type into an intellectual, which is [an agency] that most male Hollywood filmmakers of the time, or even a filmmaker like Godard, would not have given the real Bardot. She was able to see something about how we engage with mass media and tweak it.

Douglas: I’m not convinced about Sherman. [There’s] an art-world canonisation of the work. How important was it? How influential? I don’t think it was that important or influential outside of a very small area.

Marcoci: On the other hand, if you ask people if they know about Sherman, they probably do.

Lê: They do. Many young women find Sherman’s work empowering.

Marcoci: I never thought that we would just be considering photojournalism.

Meiselas: No.

Douglas: I mean, looking at the art world, I would include Ed Ruscha’s “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” [1966].

Ed Ruscha, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966).
Ed Ruscha, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966). Photograph courtesy of © Ed Ruscha, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo: Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (86-B19486)

As a teenager in Oklahoma City in the 1950s, Ed Ruscha delivered newspapers by bicycle daily along a two-mile route. He dreamed about making a model of all the buildings on his circuit, he later recalled in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, “like an architect standing over a table and plotting out a city.” After moving to Los Angeles for art school in 1956, Ruscha became obsessed with the city’s architecture, particularly on the Sunset Strip, that part of Sunset Boulevard that stretches for about two miles, like his old paper route, across West Hollywood. In 1966, Ruscha photographed both sides of the Strip by securing a motorized camera to the bed of a pickup truck. The result was “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” a nearly 25-foot accordion-fold, self-published artist’s book. Today, Ruscha is most famous for his text-based paintings, many of which reference corporate logos and advertising slogans, for which he is widely celebrated as postwar America’s answer to the Dadaist nonsense movement. But his photography shares with the paintings a repetitive, deadpan humour. In addition to the Sunset Strip, Ruscha photographed swimming pools, gas stations, parking lots and apartments, and collected the images into small books that provoked the ire of critics — and fellow photographers — who deemed the work lacking in style and meaning. (“Only an idiot would take pictures of nothing but the filling stations,” the photographer Jeff Wall once complained.) But what he created was a kind of time travel, a meticulous, obsessive visual cartography of a long-lost Los Angeles. He and his brother, Paul, still make the trip to photograph the street every couple of years. — B.E.

Ed Ruscha, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966).
Ed Ruscha, “Every Building on the Sunset Strip” (1966). Photograph courtesy of © Ed Ruscha, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian. Photo: Getty Research Institute.

Marcoci: I love [Ed] Ruscha, and I think we’ve barely touched on conceptual photography. Obviously super important, but is he really the photographer that did so much for photography through that series?

Meiselas: I know what you mean. Of course, because the photographs came way early, we rediscovered them after he became famous for painting.

Miller: Well, he’s certainly not as famous as a photographer as some people on this list, but I don’t know if we need to get hung up on that.

Douglas: I think “Sunset Strip” was extraordinary. Ruscha produces photographs governed by a hard-core conceptual procedure. In the case of “Every Building on the Sunset Strip,” the procedure is in the title and, in order to fulfill it, he had to make hundreds of stops along a Los Angeles street. But I also thought this was too inside the art world.

Miller: Maybe this is a good time to talk about Nan Goldin.

Nan Goldin, “Nan One Month After Being Battered” (1984), from the series “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (1979-2004).
Nan Goldin, “Nan One Month After Being Battered” (1984), from the series “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” (1979-2004). Photograph by © Nan Goldin, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian

Nan Goldin originally presented “Ballad,” named after a song from Bertolt Brecht’s satirical musical “The Threepenny Opera,” as a series of 35-millimeter slides shown by a carousel projector in bars and nightclubs and backed by an eclectic soundtrack — from Dean Martin to the Velvet Underground. Goldin’s visual diary is itself a bohemian opera of New York’s downtown counterculture, a community freed from convention yet abandoned many times over by society; it documents sex, addiction, beauty, violence, powerful friendship, the AIDS crisis and the joyful struggle to live beyond the limits of the mainstream. Friends were photographed doing the twist at a party or preparing to inject heroin. In “Nan One Month After Being Battered” (1984), a portrait of domestic abuse, the artist’s bloodshot eye meets the lens head-on. Goldin’s “Ballad” has since been credited with inspiring everything from selfie culture to the raw, diaristic aesthetic and saturated color now commonplace across social media and in fine art. Over the years, Goldin would revise and update the series, presenting it with new images and a different soundtrack, and it would become an ubiquitous presence in galleries and museums. But because the work has so thoroughly permeated the culture, it’s easy to overlook just how radical it was when it debuted. In “All the Beauty and the Bloodshed,” Laura Poitras’s 2022 documentary about Goldin, the photographer describes a resistance to her art in the ’80s, “especially from male artists and gallerists who said ‘This isn’t photography. Nobody photographs their own life.’ It was still a kind of outlier act.” — L.M.

Nan Goldin, “Self-Portrait in Kimono With Brian, N.Y.C.” (1983).
Nan Goldin, “Self-Portrait in Kimono With Brian, N.Y.C.” (1983). Photograph by © Nan Goldin, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.

Marcoci: We’re talking about an artist who’s very much engaged with youth culture, with the cultures that transgress gender binaries. Also with the ravages of a generation that takes drugs, that loves, that dies young. “The Ballad of Sexual Dependency” is a ballad. It shows this group of people as images set to music.

Meiselas: It was radical, it was very impactful to the photographic medium. But here’s my question: Would we be choosing either Nan [Goldin] or Cindy Sherman if we didn’t know their names?

Marcoci: Did you watch the “Ballad”?

Meiselas: Of course. I watched it in 1985.

Marcoci: How many times?

Meiselas: How many times has she changed it?

Marcoci: But even that I like. You don’t need to choose one picture. It’s interesting for me when photography is not just a moment that’s frozen in time, when it has the capacity to change.

Nan Goldin, “Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, NYC” (1983).
Nan Goldin, “Cookie at Tin Pan Alley, NYC” (1983). Photograph by © Nan Goldin, courtesy of the artist and Gagosian.
Wolfgang Tillmans, “Lutz, Alex, Suzanne & Christoph on Beach (B/W)” (1993).
Wolfgang Tillmans, “Lutz, Alex, Suzanne & Christoph on Beach (B/W)” (1993). Photograph by © Wolfgang Tillmans, courtesy of the artist; David Zwirner, New York/Hong Kong; Galerie Buchholz, Berlin/Cologne; and Maureen Paley, London.

A slightly different, color image of the same people in “Lutz, Alex, Suzanne & Christoph on Beach (B/W)” was first published by i-D magazine in 1993 for an unconventional fashion story about camouflage. The German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans staged the scene in Bournemouth, England, where he’d attended art school the previous year, and captured a whorl of bodies in military fatigues, each person clasping another’s arm, thigh or chest, and all wearing camouflage patterns from different countries — a post-Cold War utopia. The black-and-white version was printed on colour paper, which accounts for the warmth of its tone. On the beach, Lutz, Alex, Suzanne and Christoph appear as if from a scene in Charles and Ray Eames’s 1977 short film “Powers of Ten,” which zooms out from a sunny picnic into the farthest reaches of the universe. Tillmans’s photograph “seems to model something like chosen family,” says the curator Phil Taylor, who edited a collection of the artist’s interviews. The way Tillmans envisions family in this early portrait — as a tight embrace amid the implied violence of the outside world — is emblematic of the way he would go on to depict men kissing at gay nightclubs or activists at antiwar demonstrations, each a picture of solidarity against the odds. — B.E.

Lê: I think Wolfgang [Tillmans] captured youth culture — in magazines like i-D and The Face — at a time [the early ’90s] when young people were being captured in a different way: It was very clinical and idealised, and he just came out with this very real [take on] youth culture. The pictures were a little more grainy, and I think it [changed] the way young people are seen. My students always bring up his work. I think it’s a way to photograph your family and friends and turn them into real protagonists. And I see that influence as very long-lasting.

Marcoci: What’s interesting in this image is [that] it’s four friends on a beach, dressed in camouflage. Camouflage immediately makes you think of military uniforms, of obedience, of listening to orders. But in the techno culture of these clubs in the 1990s, it had become a symbol of individuality and freedom: the exact opposite of what the uniform means.

Meiselas: This image, if I didn’t know his name, I would’ve just turned the page.

Lê: I think we need a picture that speaks about youth. And I think even though this picture was made in ’93 …

Miller: … That’s still how young people are photographed today.

Lee Friedlander, “Boston” (1986).
Lee Friedlander, “Boston” (1986). Photograph by of .© Lee Friedlander, courtesy of Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco and Luhring Augustine, New York

Lee Friedlander is best known for photographing America’s social landscape, from mundane street scenes in the Midwest to nudes of Madonna that were taken in the late 1970s. Between 1975 and 1995, he created six series of photographs depicting employees at different types of workplaces, including Rust Belt factories, a telemarketing call centre and a New York investment firm. One of these series, commissioned by the M.I.T. Museum and produced between 1985 and 1986, looks at office workers in the Boston area who used desktop computers for their jobs. At the time, this was a fairly new development, but one that Friedlander presciently recognised would come to define not just corporate life but humanity itself. His subjects are often seemingly oblivious — or indifferent — to the presence of the camera. Likewise, his camera often omits the computers themselves, the ostensible subject of his images. Instead, the workers, sitting at brightly lit desks, are pictured from the chest up, their detached expressions familiar to any of us as they sit engrossed in (or bored by) screens just out of frame. With this series Friedlander had tapped into the dark comedy of the mundane. His influence can be seen in a generation of younger photographers who seek to question everyday life — from Alec Soth to LaToya Ruby Frazier — and whose images would mostly be viewed on screens. — E.I.

Marcoci: I love this series.

Douglas: I love it, too, but I put this in out of guilt for not having more art people in here. It’s images of these people just engaged in the world around them.

Meiselas: In autonomous labor. I remember when I first saw this series of white-collar workers in front of machines.

Lê: No one had done that before.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “United Auto Workers and Their Families Holding up ‘Drive It Home’ Campaign Signs Outside UAW Local 1112 Reuther Scandy Alli Union Hall, Lordstown, OH, 2019,” from the series “The Last Cruze” (2019).
LaToya Ruby Frazier’s “United Auto Workers and Their Families Holding up ‘Drive It Home’ Campaign Signs Outside UAW Local 1112 Reuther Scandy Alli Union Hall, Lordstown, OH, 2019,” from the series “The Last Cruze” (2019). Photograph by © LaToya Ruby Frazier, courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery.

LaToya Ruby Frazier’s series “The Last Cruze,” named after the compact car made by General Motors, follows the 2019 closure of an auto plant in Lordstown, Ohio, that had been open since 1966. Over nine months, Frazier documented the impact one corporation can have on a community, which lost thousands of jobs. A selection of images from the series were first published in The New York Times Magazine in May 2019, and the work was later presented as a multimedia installation: More than 60 portraits and video interviews with union workers and their families were mounted to orange metal trusses at the Renaissance Society in Chicago. In the accompanying monograph, Frazier included essays by artists and critics as well as members of the local chapter of the United Auto Workers union. On its cover is this photograph, which she shot from a helicopter, showing a group of workers and their families protesting the plant’s abrupt shuttering and requesting a new product to work on. Other images show Lordstown residents in various states of mourning — wiping away tears or proudly displaying union memorabilia. Born in a Pennsylvania steel manufacturing town, Frazier embedded herself with the Ohio workers, producing one of the most detailed records of the gutting of America’s working class. “‘The Last Cruze’ is a workers’ monument,” she has said. “It is half-holy, half-assembly line.” — L.M.

Marcoci: LaToya Ruby Frazier is a true artist-activist. These workers were losing their pension plans, their health benefits, you name it. It’s a work that includes more than 60 pictures of union workers along with their testimonies, because she also did these interviews with them.

Miller: I think “The Last Cruze” might be the only complete photographic record we have of the impact that corporate decision-making has on a work force. GM skipped town, cut their costs and the people of Lordstown were left holding the bag. We have another picture, nominated by Susan, that also documents labor.

Sebastião Salgado, “Serra Pelada Gold Mine, State of Pará, Brazil,” 1986.
Sebastião Salgado, “Serra Pelada Gold Mine, State of Pará, Brazil,” 1986. Photograph by © Sebastião Salgado.

One of the most striking aspects of Sebastião Salgado’s photographs of an open-air gold mine in Brazil is the scale. Several thousand men — their bodies hunched and fragile — are rendered miniature against the backdrop of a massive pit in the earth. In the photos, most of the miners are climbing into or out of that pit, holding tools or ferrying sacks up and down narrow ladders and steep slopes. In several shots, Salgado chose not to include the horizon within the frame; the viewer can’t see where the workers’ dangerous journey ends. The photographer, who was born in the state of Minas Gerais (which means “general mines”) in Brazil, spent 35 days at Serra Pelada, living alongside the miners while he took these photographs. When they were published in 1987 in The New York Times Magazine, they revealed a late-20th-century gold rush and the appalling conditions facing those at the bottom of it. In the nearly four decades since, Salgado has gone on to capture the burning oil wells in Kuwait, the genocide in Rwanda and the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. Some critics have labeled him an “aesthete of misery,” using the plight of the poor and disenfranchised to make visually striking pictures. When these images are exhibited in a fine art context, their size is so massive, the sheer aesthetics of the imagery threaten to eclipse the act of documentation. But in a profile in The Guardian this year marking his 80th birthday, Salgado responded, “I came from the third world. When I was born, Brazil was a developing country. The pictures I took, I took from my side, from my world, from where I come from. … The flaw my critics have, I don’t. It’s the feeling of guilt.” — E.I.

Meiselas: The scale of what he presented to us at the time was really quite amazing.

Douglas: It was like, “Holy moly, that’s still going on?”

Meiselas: Exactly.

Stuart Franklin, an Unidentified Man Blocking a Column of Tanks in Tiananmen Square, 1989
The subject of Franklin’s famous image from the Tiananmen Square massacre has come to be known as Tank Man. Photograph by © Stuart Franklin/Magnum Photos.

On June 5, 1989, as a column of tanks rolled into formation on Chang’an Avenue bordering Tiananmen Square, the Magnum photographer Stuart Franklin watched from the sixth-floor balcony of the nearby Beijing Hotel. He was holed up there with several other foreign correspondents, who were all covering the weekslong protests, led by hundreds of thousands of unarmed students, against the Chinese Communist Party. Two nights before, the People’s Liberation Army had cleared the area with force; the next morning, they prevented parents from looking for students lost in the fray, and the soldiers fired live rounds even as medics attempted to rush the injured to safety. (Thousands are thought to have been killed in the protests, although an official death toll has never been released.) Suddenly, around noon on the 5th, a young man in a white shirt and dark pants, holding shopping bags in his hands, approached the first tank. On the video footage, it attempts to maneuver around him. Like a matador taunting a bull, he flings his arms in fury and, when the tank turns back, the man jumps out again. Yet the dramatic photograph Franklin took, with five tanks and a destroyed bus in the frame, draws its power from its stillness, its potential energy. (Four other photographers are known to have captured the same scene, including Jeff Widener, whose tightly framed version for The Associated Press ran on the front page of The Times.) Authoritarian regimes cannot tolerate symbolic images of resistance and, while the Tank Man — whose identity has never been confirmed — became an inspiration for pro-democracy movements across the world, he was snuffed out from official Chinese memory. Today, image searches in China for “Tiananmen Square” only turn up cheerful pictures of a tourist destination. — B.E.

Douglas: Multiple photographers shot this image because they were all in the same corner of a hotel overlooking Tiananmen Square. They couldn’t really shoot anywhere else on the square. The first time I saw this scene, it was a video.

Meiselas: Right, there was a television camera. The stills are very different. And I don’t care whose image it is. I’m thinking about the man in front of the tank and what happens when one man stands up. And I love how this looks alongside Ernest Withers’s “I Am a Man.”

Broomberg & Chanarin, ”The Press Conference, June 9, 2008 (detail)” from “The Day Nobody Died” (2008).
Broomberg & Chanarin, ”The Press Conference, June 9, 2008 (detail)” from “The Day Nobody Died” (2008). Photograph courtesy of The late estate of Broomberg and Chanarin.

In 2008, the artist duo Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin were embedded with the British Army in Afghanistan during a period that was, at the time, the deadliest week since the war began in 2001. They brought a lightproof box containing a roll of photographic paper, and, occasionally, exposed six-meter segments of the paper to the sun for 20 seconds at a time. They were creating photograms, which, as opposed to conventional war photographs, display the marks of their making but little else. The resulting works — 12 in total — set out “to create a kind of post-mortem of photojournalistic representation of conflict,” as the artists wrote when the work was first exhibited. They made these images on days when a BBC fixer was executed or a suicide attack killed nine Afghan soldiers. But they also made one on the day that the title refers to — a day with no fatalities. In a literal sense, there isn’t anything to see in the images except splashes of light as abstract as a blurry sonogram. When Broomberg and Chanarin arrived in Afghanistan, the war was in its seventh year and, by then, a surfeit of photographs depicting death and violence had long been circulating. There’s hardly consensus on what to leave out when depicting war, but there is some consensus on the need to bear witness. With their photograms, Broomberg and Chanarin found a new, unexpected, but no less emotional way of doing so. — E.I.

Miller: There were a lot of different kinds of images of war from the George W. Bush era. Nadia, you nominated Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s “The Day Nobody Died,” which is very abstract.

Douglas: What is it?

Vellam: They did this project in Afghanistan where they took rolls of photo paper and put them outside, exposing them to the sun or the weather. Whatever would happen while the photo paper was exposed was the work. It’s about a new idea of photography, about it not depicting something specific but creating a mood. And this one was taken, as the title says, on a day nobody died, which is such an interesting and different way to talk about a conflict.

Richard Drew, “Falling Man,” 2001.
Richard Drew, “Falling Man,” 2001. Photograph courtesy of Richard Drew/AP Photos.

When it was first published by The Associated Press, the photojournalist Richard Drew’s image of a man falling to his death from the World Trade Center on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, was denounced by many readers as exploitative. Several media outlets published the image once, on Sept. 12 — including The Times, on page A7 — but it then disappeared from circulation, confined to shock websites like There was no shortage of graphic images of 9/11, including footage of the planes flying into the buildings. But Drew’s photo was uniquely unsettling because of its uncomfortable elegance: a single victim, framed by both north and south towers, caught in a fragile stasis before death. The image eventually began a strange afterlife as “one of the most famous photographs in human history,” according to the journalist Tom Junod, who wrote a 2003 essay in Esquire in which he attempts to identify the falling man. He couldn’t — not definitively. No one has. Recalling war photography that valorises the unknown soldier, “Falling Man” would go on to be one of the inspirations for a novel by Don DeLillo and an opera by Daniel Levy. Long after the dust settled on the former site of the World Trade Center, the photograph of the unnamed man remains, like “an unmarked grave,” in Junod’s words, merely asking that we look at it. — E.I.

Miller: I think “Falling Man” is the defining image from the most violent day in America since the Civil War.

Shikeith: I was in middle school when 9/11 happened. Images from that day seem to seep into you. You carry them for life and they dictate certain fears and anxieties.

Miller: And then there are all the images from what happened in the years to come. The pictures of soldiers torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib military prison are arguably the most famous photographs from the war on terror.

A detainee at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in a file image obtained by The Associated Press in late 2003.
A detainee at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, in a file image obtained by The Associated Press in late 2003. Photograph courtesy of AP Photos.

In early 2004, investigations into abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. soldiers at the Abu Ghraib detention facility had already been reported by news outlets including The New York Times and CNN. But the government had kept all photographs of torture out of view — until leaked images reached CBS. Even then, the news anchor Dan Rather would claim, the network’s executives only granted permission to show them when faced with the threat of a scoop by The New Yorker’s investigative journalist Seymour Hersh. (CBS executives justified holding the photos on various grounds, including the desire to avoid retaliation against American hostages.) The Abu Ghraib photos finally appeared in both outlets later that year. Their subject matter is brutal: men stripped naked and made to form a human pyramid with soldiers grinning behind them; a hooded man standing atop a box, hooked to electrical wires. The fact that American soldiers had recorded these scenes on their personal cameras only made them more disturbing. The photos significantly shifted American public opinion on the war on terror, further demonstrating the power of an image to alter a story. They also speak to a broader shift in news photography, in which everyone — no matter their intentions — is now a potential journalist. — L.M.

Shikeith: Both “Falling Man” and the hooded Iraqi detainee have a hard-core bodily effect on me. I think there was a sort of naïveté to the world I grew up in, just this idea that America is the greatest place on earth. For a moment there, we believed the myth. At least I did. When I started seeing these images, I developed a distrust in a lot of things. It only got worse. I have a very pessimistic outlook, but it sort of begins here, with these images.

Carrie Mae Weems, “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried,” 1995-96
Images from Carrie Mae Weems’s “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” (1995-96). Photograph by © Carrie Mae Weems, courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York, Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, and Galerie Barbara Thumm, Berlin

Carrie Mae Weems’s “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” is a work of appropriation that brings together 34 photographs, many of them of Black Americans, dating from the mid-19th century to the late 1960s, which collectively form a lesson on the history of racism in America. At the heart of the work are four images of people who were enslaved in South Carolina — some of the earliest known images that exist of America’s original sin — taken by the photographer Joseph T. Zealy and commissioned in 1850 by the Harvard University biologist Louis Agassiz. Originally intended to illustrate Agassiz’s baseless phrenological theories of Black inferiority, the pictures were rescaled and reframed by Weems, who also tinted them blood-red, making explicit the violence that allowed for their creation. Stored in Harvard’s archives for more than a century, Zealy’s images fell into obscurity, only to be rediscovered in 1976. After Weems used them without permission, the school threatened her with a lawsuit. “I think that your suing me would be a really good thing,” she told the university, as she later recalled to the art historian Deborah Willis. “You should, and we should have this conversation in court.” Instead of proceeding with the suit, Harvard acquired the work, further complicating the idea of ownership that Weems investigates. — E.I.

Vellam: We should talk about Carrie [Mae Weems].

Meiselas: We should definitely talk about Carrie. There are two very different options [“Kitchen Table Series,” 1990, and “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried.”]

Lê: I chose the “Kitchen Table Series” [in which Weems poses as the matriarch in various domestic scenes she staged in a single room, containing little else but an overhead lamp and a table]. The kitchen table is symbolic — it’s the intimacy of the home. In a way I always felt these pictures were about people being able to be themselves, being open and visible in a way that they maybe can’t in public.

Marcoci: To me, the “Kitchen Table Series” is a true performance for the camera in a way that Cindy’s is in “Untitled Film Stills.” But “From Here I Saw What Happened and I Cried” is an amazing work because it engages with race, with slavery, with colonialism, through an archive. The subjects here were really originally presented as specimens. But what Carrie does is give a voice back to these subjects, whose voices were completely muted. She enlarges the photographs. She tints them blood-red. The whole thing becomes a poem.

Shikeith: This particular work taught me how to use photographs to tell a story. And the fact that [Harvard threatened to sue her] introduces this whole other issue about who gets to tell what stories.

Deana Lawson, “Nation” (2018).
Deana Lawson, “Nation” (2018). Photograph by © Deana Lawson, courtesy of the artist and David Kordansky Gallery.

The idea for “Nation” came to Deana Lawson in a dream. She was haunted by a story that George Washington’s false teeth were made from the teeth of enslaved people. For months, she kept an image of Washington’s dentures — held in Mount Vernon’s collection — on the wall of her bedroom. Lawson dreamed about a person wearing a mouth guard and wondered if she might forge a connection between the majesty of gold — the jewellery of hip-hop and the regalia of the Ashanti Kingdom — and the fact that the first president of the United States could only speak the lofty words of liberty through teeth that once belonged to the oppressed. Lawson is known for portraits she stages in homes and other intimate spaces, often decorated with a large array of objects: family pictures, children’s toys, a Michael Jackson poster. In her images, Black men and women, their skin captured in color with meticulous attention to shade and tone, appear not as documentary subjects but as vessels. “Her people seem to occupy a higher plane, a kingdom of restored glory,” the novelist Zadie Smith has written of Lawson’s photography. At the photo shoot for “Nation,” Lawson offered three hip-hop artists a selection of jewellery and a mouth guard, typically worn during dental procedures, painted gold. “Someone said that I’m ruthless when it comes to what I want,” Lawson says in an interview in her self-titled 2018 monograph. “I have an image in mind that … burns so deeply that I have to make it, and I don’t care what people are going to think.” “Nation” presents an endless series of questions about Black lineage, going back centuries before the nation’s founding. Lawson later printed the picture of Washington’s teeth on a card and slipped it into the edge of the work’s golden frame. — B.E.

Miller: Deana Lawson seems to be doing something similar to Weems in “Nation.”

Marcoci: I think that’s an amazing image. It’s actually a collage, with the picture of George Washington’s dentures tucked into the top right corner. She’s said photography has the power to make history and the present speak to each other.

Carlijn Jacobs, “Renaissance” album cover (2022).
Carlijn Jacobs, “Renaissance” album cover (2022). Photograph by © Carlijn Jacobs/Parkwood Entertainment.

On July 29, 2022, when Beyoncé released “Renaissance,” the first of what she’s envisioned as a three-act magnum opus (act two, “Cowboy Carter,” was released this March), the public was exhausted after two and a half years of pandemic restrictions and unprecedented change to their daily routines. They were stir-crazy and impatient for the dance floor. Beyoncé embraced the sounds of house music pioneered by Black and queer D.J.s, as well as the subversive, high-gloss styling of ballroom culture. The singer appears on the album’s cover in a Nusi Quero-designed silver rope dress, sitting astride a horse covered in mirrors. The image was taken by Carlijn Jacobs, a Dutch fashion photographer interested in the art of masquerade and maximalist glamour, and alludes to both rodeo and royalty. It also conjures a range of artistic references, including Kehinde Wiley’s painting “Equestrian Portrait of Isabella of Bourbon” (2016); Rose Hartman’s snapshots of Bianca Jagger on a white horse at Studio 54 in 1977; and John Collier’s 1890s painting of Lady Godiva, the 11th-century Englishwoman said to have rode her horse naked through the streets as a form of protest. — B.E.

Vellam: Does anybody else feel like we’re missing a pop-culture celebrity moment? If we’re talking about images that go everywhere, and that people who live in the middle of the country all are going to look at, I don’t feel we have that.

Douglas: I think it’s important to include the idea of celebrity culture in photography. I’m not quite sure what that would be.

Lê: There’s the [2017] picture of Beyoncé pregnant with all the flowers.

Miller: Initially, Shikeith had also picked Beyoncé from the album cover of “Dangerously in Love” (2003).

Marcoci: But sorry, why don’t we then just choose a [Richard] Avedon of a celebrity?

Vellam: Marilyn Monroe [from 1957]. But don’t we feel like we have plenty of photographs from the past? Don’t we want to think about what celebrity is now?

Miller: What’s the iconic pop culture image from the last five years?

Douglas: Is there a Kardashian image?

Vellam: I can’t, because I hate them so much. But yes, you want the thing of [Kim Kardashian] when she broke the internet with her butt [an image that ran on the cover of Paper magazine in 2014].

Douglas: I’m going back to Beyoncé, because [you want] an image of a celebrity who’s not a person but an image. She’s like a simulacrum somehow.

Vellam: With her “Renaissance” cover, suddenly she was plastered everywhere. It was all over the city.

Douglas: I’d buy that.

Shikeith: I think it’s very important that she released this album and highlighted Black queer contributions to music in the culture because, very frequently, those same contributions are erased or attributed to someone else. Especially in pop culture.

Marcoci: Can you hold it up on your phone?

Vellam: Yeah. I listen to it all the time.