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The World's Most Iconic Photos

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Braving bucketing rain to catch Bannister, ducking gunfire in Vietnam; Louise Donovan reveals the heroic photographers behind some of history’s most enduring images

Every picture tells a story, but truly great images tell more than one. The photographs on these pages, from ‘Jewels Of The Archive’ – a new Getty Images Gallery retrospective mined from more than 60 million photos – show striking snapshots in history and provide tales so rich that the image reveals something altogether more fascinating, be it a treacherous hunt for film or lugging panes of glass to the South Pole. We asked Matthew Butson, head of the Getty Images archive, to walk us through the secret history of these immortal moments.

A New Record

Roger Bannister about to cross the finish line at the end of his record-breaking mile run at Iffley Road, by Norman Potter, 6 May 1954

How quickly can you run a mile? We’ll bet it’s nowhere near neurologist Roger Bannister’s world record breaking 3 minutes 59.4 seconds. Sixty years ago, on a cold day in Oxford, he became the first person to shave milliseconds off the record. It sounds remarkable, but some were less impressed. “It was a horrible day, overcast, raining and no one thought it was possible, so most photographers didn’t turn up,” says Butson. “Norman Potter was one of only two photographers who captured Bannister crossing the line. Nowadays, if Mo Farah was making an attempt on the marathon, there’d be 4,000 photographers there.” The photo you see here has recently been updated: “By chance I found the original negative. It was broken in half, but we managed to sandwich it between two pieces of glass, rescan and retouch it.”

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Early Flight

Hubert Latham’s first attempt to cross the English Channel in an aeroplane, photographer unknown, 1909

In 1908, Daily Mail publisher Lord Northcliffe offered a £1,000 prize to the first pilot to fly over the English Channel. This French aviator didn’t make it – seven miles out, the Antoinette IV monoplane’s engine quit – but Latham landed in style. He calmly put his feet on the crossbar, lit a cigarette and waited for help. This shot, taken by a Topical Press photographer, captures the flight mid-air. “This was shot on a glass plate,” says Butson. “To get this in focus when you’re shooting into the sun is very tough.” At a time when journalists frowned on press agencies, Topical was a master. “If you just pointed your camera and waited for the plane to pass your focal view, it would come out as a blur,” says Butson. “This photographer scanned the sky and brought the camera across with the plane, so it’s always in frame and therefore always in focus. It’s beautiful.”

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Eye of the Antarctic

Ice grotto entrance on Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition to the Antarctic, by Herbert Ponting, 1911

The men here are geologist Thomas Taylor and meteorologist Charles Wright, part of Scott’s doomed South Pole party. Working in sub-zero conditions, Ponting used glass plates the size of window panes and shot in Autochromes for colour. He also pioneered the use of flash and cinematography in this setting. “The photo tells the story in layers: you have two guys in the eye of the needle, and the Terra Nova in the background. The light is coming through the glacier, almost giving it an aura,” says Butson. “If Scott had come back it would have been a triumph, but it was a disaster. People didn’t want to look at Ponting’s work because it was too distressing.”

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Jumping Geoff

England striker Geoff Hurst leaps after scoring the winning goal against Argentina, photographer unknown, 1966

Sometimes imperfections make a photo iconic. Take this image, capturing the moment Geoff Hurst scored the only goal in England’s landmark 1966 World Cup quarter-final match at Wembley Stadium. His head may be missing, but you can still taste the joy. “It’s all wrong in terms of composition, but it just works. It’s his body shape jumping in the air. You have everything you need to understand what’s going on, without it being perfect.” We don’t know who took the photograph, but it’s the details completing the story. In the background, Roger Hunt raises his arms, Alan Ball stands in surprise and a distant Bobby Charlton is almost skating in delight. “The funny thing is, this was taken in a World Cup quarter-final. In Brazil, there will probably be about 500 photographers around the pitch. It’s amazing how much things have changed. You can have all the cameras and technology in the world, but it’s about getting that different shot.”

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In the Trenches

US troops duck fire from the Viet Cong in a trench during the Vietnam War, by Terry Fincher, 1968

“Terry’s photos were not about blood and guts,” explains Butson. “It’s more about the human condition. You don’t have to show people’s arms or legs being blown off to convey real darkness.” The photojournalist completed five tours of Vietnam, and won British Press Photographer Of The Year four times. For this shot, he’s not using a photo lens, meaning he’s only inches away from the US troops during shelling. The spare helmet? That’s Fincher’s. “I said to Terry, ‘Some idiot’s taken his helmet off.’ And he said, ‘That was me, I couldn’t get the camera up to my eye line, so I took it off,’” says Butson. Fincher then waited for a lull in the shelling, crawled out and spent five days travelling back to Saigon to replace his stock of film. “That’s just how it was, you didn’t just stick in another compact flash card and email shots to your local picture desk.”

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Walking over Niagara

French acrobat and tightrope-walker Charles Blondin crossing Niagara on a tightrope, by William England, 1859

Jean François Gravelet-Blondin was a French daredevil who trained as an acrobat, cementing his fame by crossing the 11km Niagara Gorge. Not content with simply making it over alive, the showman then made repeat journeys with added theatrics: “He’d go across with his pole, have a glass of champagne and do a jig,” says Butson. “Then he’d go across with a wheelbarrow, returning with a potbelly stove grilling eggs and bacon. He’d then lower himself into the Niagara and wash himself. His pièce de résistance was to put his manager on his back and walk across. Not even David Blaine attempts things like that.”

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‘Jewels Of The Archive’ is at the Getty Images Gallery until 6 Sept; gettyimagesgallery.com

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