Behind the Lens – The Stories Behind 5 Famous Images

Often, what makes a photograph so compelling or moving is the story it tells. But many of the most interesting photographs have stories worth telling about what was going out behind the camera and outside the frame of the image.

Today we’re going behind the scenes to talk about the stories behind five of history’s most well-known photographs.

1) The Dali Atomicus – Philippe Halsman

Philippe Halsman made a career out of capturing images of people jumping, but it is this image that he is perhaps most well known for.

The image is so striking because everything in the frame seems to be suspended in mid-air; the subject, the easel and painting, the chair, and of course the water and cats.

This was achieved by using wire to hold the easel and painting and having an assistant hold the chair just out of frame.

It took more than six hours to capture the final image and took 28 actual jumps, as well as the assistants throwing buckets of water and angry cats across the room.

2) Migrant Mother – Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother is perhaps the image of the great Depression and has become synonymous with the troubles and feeling of the time.

Taken in 1936 in a resettlement camp in Nipomo, California, this image focuses on a mother and her children as they await relocation.

The particular campsite that Lange found herself in on the day of the photograph was filled with out-of-work pea pickers. The crops had been destroyed by frost and the subject – later revealed to be Florence Thompson – had just sold the tires from her car to be able to buy food.

When asked about life during this time, the Migrant Mother said “We just existed. We survived. Let’s put it that way.”

Lange’s notes reveal that the Migrant Mother and her family were surviving on what little food they could afford, frozen vegetables from nearby fields, and birds that the children killed with stones.

After the publication of the image, the American government sent a shipment of 20,000 lbs of food and drink to the camp, but many continued to be angry that government had allowed things to get so bad.

3) The Vulture and the Little Girl – Kevin Carter

Taken in 1993, this image became known throughout the world and became the “face” of the Sudan Famine.

Carter and fellow photographer, João Silva, were accompanying a UN group from Operation Lifeline Sudan and had made a stop in a village to deliver supplies. The photographers were told that they had 30 minutes before the group had to move on.

According to Silva, Carter spent almost all of this time preparing this image. As he was about to capture an image of a young girl, a vulture landed nearby. Carter approached slowly and adjusted his focus to getting both in the frame, but then waited for almost 20 minutes hoping that the vulture would spread its wings.

When it was clear that the bird was not going to, he captured the image and proceeded to chase the bird away.

After its publication, many people were outraged that Carter had seemingly done nothing to help the child. The New York Times, who published the image, had no information on the child and whether or not they were still alive. Later investigations revealed the subject survived but died 14 years later of Malaria.

Carter won the Pulitzer Prize for his image and the global attention it brought to the Sudan Famine.

Carter received a lot of negative criticism over the photograph and his apparent refusal to help the child – despite all photographers in the region being expressly told not to touch the famine victims for fear of spreading disease.

Just over a year later, Carter took his own life, writing in his suicide note “I am haunted by the vivid memories of killings and corpses and anger and pain…of starving or wounded children”.

4) Albert Einstein – Arthur Sasse

Sasse’s image of Einstein is one of the most iconic and well-known images ever.

This image was taken on Einstein’s 72nd birthday. When asked to smile for the image by Sasse, Einstein instead poked his tongue out for the camera.

Einstein enjoyed the resulting image so much that he requested nine copies for himself. One of the copies was signed and given to a reporter, and was later sold at auction for over $74,000.

5) Winston Churchill – Yousuf Karsh

Long-time fans of Photoion will be familiar with Karsh’s work (you can read our article about his work here:

This portrait of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill is one of the most widely reproduced portraits of the 20th century, but Churchill’s iconic scowl was not intentional.

Churchill was famous for always smoking a cigar, and this occasion was no different. Having just finished delivering a speech to the Canadian Parliament, Churchill retired to the Speaker’s chambers where Karsh had set up to capture his image.

Churchill wasn’t aware that he would be photographed at that moment and afforded Karsh only 2 minutes of his time. But immediately after entering the room, Churchill took out a cigar and began to smoke.

After patiently waiting, and fearing he would miss his opportunity, Karsh stepped forward and took the cigar from Churchill.

The final image is Churchill’s reaction to being relieved of his cigar.

So there you have it, five stories of how some of the most well-known images came to be.

Which image is your favourite?

Let us know in the comments!