Thinking of the most influential photos in history

A few days ago, I picked up a special edition of Time magazine, which features their choice of the 100 most influential photographs of all time and tells stories behind those images.

Could you guess what they chose for the cover? While this photo is definitely iconic and is known all across the world, I'd never think of it as one of the most influential. It's Lunch Atop a Skyscraper, 1932, depicting 11 men having lunch 69 stories above Manhattan at the Rockefeller Center.

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Even before I opened the magazine, that choice made me think about what influence is (and also made me buy it; applause to people behind that decision, not every day I spend almost $20 for one issue).

When I was a kid I was sure that that picture was edited. Isn't it absurd? It was completely logical for me to believe that it was fake even though we were just getting introduced to the computers and opportunities they open (I don't think Photoshop existed when I first saw that image), than to assume that someone would not only be crazy enough to just hang out sitting on girder out in the sky over the city, but also have someone pretty much flying around them to take a picture.

(By the way, there is a photo of one of the three photographers who was out there taking that picture at the end of the magazine. This one I saw for the first time and it made my stomach vibrate like butterfly's wings).

But maybe that's exactly what influence is? This picture of regular men taken in the midst of the Great Depression in the States became a symbol of American ignorance towards fear, the quality that got them through many more crises down the road and the feature that inspired millions of others around the world. 

That same picture also made me flip right to the end of the magazine to check out what they would have chosen from more recent creations. Can you guess what was on the last page? The 2014 poor quality celebrity loaded selfie, organized by Ellen DeGeneres, posted on Twitter right from the Oscars and that was retweeted more than any other photo in history. I guess it's a totally different story of influence.

I took a class in photography in university, which taught us the basics, history and mechanics of this art or trade – depending on how you look at it. During the exam, the professor asked me what does a photograph do to reality. I was so stressed out that I couldn't remember the word "reproduce." It happened over 15 years ago, and picture-taking wasn't as much of an integral part of our routine back then as it is now. The first smartphone wasn't released yet, and cameras in cells were pretty sad. But now, when I recalled this situation, I realized that I don't see the "reproduction" of reality as the photograph's main function.

In the current world, everyday millions of new photographs don't reproduce reality anymore. They make landscapes look brighter, they make people look more ideal, enhanced features create meanings the reality doesn't carry. The pictures keep creating an atmosphere and help explain what's happening somewhere, where we are not, which is also powerful, but very different.

The editors of the Time issue, Ben Goldberger, Paul Moakley and Kira Pollack, in their opening to the special edition, state that some pictures they've chosen for the magazine after the exhaustive work "were the first ones of their kind, others … shaped the way we think; and some made the cut because they directly changed the way we live." But all of them are claimed to be turning points, but without the background, in many cases, the power of pictures isn't obvious.

With no context to frame it, when I tried to think what I would pick as the most influential pictures, I imagined some important landmarks, like a flag over Reichstag or mushroom cloud or images of 9/11, and significant leaders, like Churchill, Lincoln and Hitler (all actually were in the magazine). But if you look at the task as a compilation of images, you realize that sometimes something touching, or gut-wrenching, and certainly timely makes the image priceless, like Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lange, 1936, the strongest picture that humanized the cost of Great Depression.

Nowadays there is also something else that makes pictures influential, and that is not always clear to me.

In general, the approach to influence chosen by the editors woke up the curiosity and created a discussion inside my head. While some choices weren't clear even after reading stories behind the pictures, the issue is worth the time as it takes attention away from routine, zooms you out and makes you think about the bigger picture and on the moments, personalities or features that became those turning points forever changing our bigger pictures.

And what comes to your mind when you read "100 most influential pictures in history?"

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