Time’s Photo Director on Seven of the Most Influential Pictures in History

Bill Clinton photographed by Marco Grob for 2010 TIME 100
Dalí Atomicus, by Philippe Halsman (1948) Photo: Philippe Halsman/Magnum

“Influence” is a tricky idea, nearly impossible to quantify. All the same, Kira Pollack, the photo director of Time, and her colleagues attempted to do just that for a book and associated website called 100 Photographs: The Most Influential Images of All Time, and boy, oh boy, were they in for it. “Influence,” it turns out, does not mean fame: It’s the difference between Ansel Adams’s unbeatable images of Yosemite and those of Carleton Watkins, which are less majestic and formally beautiful but also were made 80 years earlier, coaxing Abraham Lincoln to protect for eternity the land now known as Yosemite National Park.

One striking thing about the book and its associated website — which includes videos detailing the stories behind 20 of the photos — is that quite a few of the photographs are by non-professionals. (That would have been preposterous a few years ago, when the AP and UPI wires and a few other sources, like Time Inc. itself, were the main sources of great pictures in the world.) Cell phones changed everything, and we are at the beginning of something rather than the end. Of everything in this collection, the Zapruder film, one frame of which appears in this collection, is arguably the most predictive: “If the president was going through Dallas today,” notes Pollack, “everyone would be recording every minute of it.”  We asked her to speak about seven of her team’s selections, shown in the slideshow below.

It’s easy to forget just how difficult it was to make a photograph 150 years ago. “Carleton Watkins lugged his large-format camera into what we now call Yosemite,” says Pollack, and made 130 pictures on glass-plate negatives that were developed on the spot in a tent. Back east, in Washington, they were eye-opening: “Those pictures were shown to President Lincoln. They brought you to a place, and Yosemite National Park came from those pictures.” Photo: The J. Paul Getty Museum
Philippe Halsman photographed Salvador Dalí many times. This time, in 1948, they conspired to make a tableau that matched the painter’s Leda Atomica weirdness for weirdness. (The original painting appears in the photo.) “This was 1948, decades before Photoshop,” says Pollack, with awe. “It was all made in-camera, at that time. To do that kind of high-concept picture, where cats are thrown, buckets of water are thrown … he did 26 takes. It was incredible! And it really paved the way for celebrity conceptual portraiture — not a great lit portrait of a celebrity but something way more conceptual.” Watch the video here. Photo: Philippe Halsman/Magnum
Edgerton was not, strictly speaking, a photographer: He was an MIT engineering professor, the man who invented the electronic strobe that allowed ultra-high-speed photographs to be made for the first time. “He was obsessed with this drop,” Pollack says. “Freezing a moment.” The glossy red surface is not a complex studio set: It’s just a red cookie tin. Watch the video here. Photo: Harold Edgerton/© 2010 MIT. Harold E. Edgerton
Just before his daughter was born, the software entrepreneur Philippe Kahn rigged a flip phone to a digital camera, writing a few lines of code so the two devices could communicate. In the maternity ward on June 11, 1997, this photograph was instantly sent to a list of 2,000 friends and relatives, the first of literally trillions, in a democratizing of photography whose reach is only beginning to be felt. “It’s easier to make great pictures — I mean, the iPhone 7 camera is a great camera,” Pollack says, adding that the question then becomes, “How do pictures keep being made that can rise above to be influential?”
David Kirby, the AIDS patient in this photograph, was in the final days of his life, and this photo was published in Life. “But really what gave it attention,” Pollack says, “was that Benetton published it as an ad. Certainly there were great pictures made around the topic of AIDS, but this became influential because it was commercialized.” (Kirby’s mother, Kay, said at the time, “We just felt it was time that people saw the truth.”) Kirby’s pose, hair, and beard — and his father’s shattered face and embrace — give their pose the unmistakable look of a Byzantine portrait of the martyred Christ. Watch the video here.
As chilling as any photograph in this book: Ferrato was on assignment to shoot swinger couples for the Japanese edition of Playboy when she got to know this affluent New Jersey couple, whom she called Garth and Lisa. What she did not expect was to be in the room when Garth began to hit his wife. “It changed the photographer’s life,” says Pollack, explaining that she went on to document other scenes of domestic violence in women’s shelters and working with police. As part of this Time project, “Lisa” revealed her identity — her given name is Elisabeth, and her husband, now dead, was Bengt — for the first time. Watch the video here. Photo: Library of congress/2004
A picture by a journalist, posted live from the DPRK. That’s it. Sounds ordinary — except that until 2013, there weren’t any of those. “It was the first picture made by a professional photographer, an AP photographer, that was uploaded directly to an instant audience,” Pollack says. “Coming out of North Korea, that was huge. It was all handouts before, and you’d never see a moment like that.” Photo: Jean H. Lee/ASSOCIATED PRESS
The Most Influential Photographs in History