In the vast and ever-expanding catalogue of photography there are perhaps just a few famous shots that can be used to define the medium. These landmark photos are those that immortalized, in sepia, black and white, or vivid colour, not just moments in history but also moments in the evolution of photography as an art form and a tool of mass communication. I set myself the challenge of picking just three that exemplify this for me. You may well pick three equally great others.
Robert Capa – The Falling Soldier
Capa was a war photographer and a founder of the legendary Magnum photo agency. This picture, taken on September 5th, 1936, shows a young republican soldier in the Spanish civil war at the moment of his violent demise. Apparently shot in the head, the militiaman is frozen by Capa’s lens as he falls backwards, his rifle slipping from his now-lifeless hand. Capa claimed to have taken the shot without even looking through the viewfinder, instead poking his camera over his head from a trench and shooting blind.
There is a terrible beauty about this image, the emotionless serenity of the casualty’s face as his young life is snuffed out. At the same time it serves as a powerful visual talisman bringing the visceral horror of war into jarringly clear focus. There’s been doubt cast on its authenticity, with claims that it is a staged image, but the fact remains that once this photo has been seen, it burns itself into one’s psyche forever.
Neil Leifer – Ali vs. Liston
The greatest boxing photograph of all time, and maybe even one of the best sports shots ever, is Neil Leifer’s now-legendary image of the incomparable Muhammad Ali standing over a prostrate Sonny Liston during their May 1965 World Heavyweight title fight. Reproduced a million times, Leifer’s pic is considered by most to be the defining image of ‘The Greatest’ – Ali.
The expression on Ali’s face as Liston sprawls on the canvas at his feet is triumphant, animal, and cocky all at once. This image contributed to the deserved legend that is Ali, and set the bar higher for future sports photography.
Steve McCurry – Afghan Girl
Since appearing on the cover of June 1985’s National Geographic, McCurry’s image of an Afghan refugee in Pakistan has captured hearts and imaginations. The powerful portrait of an unnamed girl on the brink of womanhood whose striking green eyes hint, in their intense gaze, at the hardship she might have seen and is yet to see, is an iconic 20th century image. Against all odds the photographer and she were reunited in 2002. That cover demonstrated photography’s great ability to humanize a faraway crisis for those of us obliviously untouched by such suffering.