5 Shocking Facts That Will Change How You View Famous Photos
Much of our history, particularly over the past century, has been told in photographs. Even if we're only vaguely familiar with the event being depicted, an iconic image just strikes a chord with us, probably because it doesn't require any reading.
Consequently, history allows us to construct a story around those images that, over time, becomes the official account of what happened. The thing is, those stories are sometimes either taken out of context or are pure and utter bullshit -- and occasionally leave out the most fascinating story ever recorded about an insane celebrity driving to the White House with a gun in a glass box.
The "Lunch Atop A Skyscraper" Picture Was Staged For An Ad Campaign
New York, 1932. Eleven iron workers are taking a lunchtime break 850 feet in the air, without a single safety harness, on the bare girders of a skyscraper under construction. It was a testament to the American work ethic, the tough-as-nails attitude of the people of the city, and the idea that the United States was trying to build itself out of the ditch where the Great Depression had left it. The subtext, of course, being that eating lunch on a tiny steel beam in the clouds was the kind of work these men were forced to do, unless they wanted to doom their families to a full-on The Grapes of Wrath type of life.
It's a powerful image, both because of its surreal "oh shit, those dudes are about to die" air and the mystery surrounding it: No one seems to know who took the photo or who the 11 men were. As such, many have suspected it's some kind of darkroom trick, like an early century Photoshop intended to convey New York badassitude.
But, In Reality ...
Well, we have good news and bad news. The good news is the photograph is genuine. Those are real dudes sitting on a real girder that was higher than Zeus' rec room. The bad news is, the photo wasn't part of a LIFE magazine series on the blue-collar workers of the Great Depression, or even a very specific group of performance artists. No, the photo is part of a publicity campaign to advertise the construction of the RCA Building, known today as the GE Building.
Less famous photos from the shoot include the steel workers playing football on the girder, sleeping on the girder, and doing Crocodile Mile on the girder.
The mysteries behind the picture started to unfold in 2012, when filmmaker Sean O Cualain started digging into the history of the photo shoot. Over time, he has managed to verify the history of the photo and even lock down the identities of two of the iron workers (the third guy from the right is named Joe Curtis, and the third from the left is Joseph Eckner). One day, he may be able to identify them all, although it seems like a mathematical certainty that at least two more of them will be named Joseph.
The Iconic "Battle Of Berlin" Photo Was Staged
In May 1945, the Allied Powers finally had Hitler on the ropes, and the Soviet war machine was busy delivering vicious dick punches to the very concept of Germany in the Battle Of Berlin. As Stalin's Red Army was readying itself to deliver the final Reich-shattering knockout punch, one proud warrior decided to flip Nazis the ultimate bird in the form of a big ol' Soviet flag, hanging over the city from atop the iconic, heavily damaged Reichstag parliament building.
This resulted in an iconic photo that captures the fall of the Third Reich like no other and, as such, remains one of the few acceptable reasons for Americans to take a look at the Soviet flag and do a little fist pump.
But, In Reality ...
While Russia did briefly raise the flag on the Reichstag during the Battle Of Berlin, no one actually wanted to stop and pose next to the freaking thing because they were in the middle of the Battle Of Berlin. Stopping to take a quick photo in the middle of combat is a great way to start a bullet collection in your face, but not such a good way to win and/or survive a war.
However, Moscow had recently found out about the already iconic photo the US Military had captured of the flag raising at Iwo Jima and was desperate to score a similar photo for the USSR. So, the military command (some say it was Stalin himself) promptly ordered photographer Yevgeny Khaldei to haul his ass to Berlin and stage a USSR-approved photo as patriotic as the dastardly Americans' Iwo Jima antics. By the time the photo was taken, Hitler had actually already been dead for a few days, and the city was more or less safely in Russian hands when the proud, unnamed soldier finally scrambled up the empty German parliament building to hang that flag.
Also, even though the Reichstag photo was the clear winner that went on to grace the interior of history books for the next half-century, the Reichstag was only one of several locations Khaldei scouted. He toured a bunch of different spots, from Tempelhof Airport to the Brandenburg Gate, until he finally decided that the Reichstag building was the perfect backdrop for displaying the Soviet army's remarkable Wehrmacht-stomping ability.
Bob Dylan's Prison Meeting With Rubin "Hurricane" Carter Was Staged In A Hallway
The above photo shows music legend extraordinaire Bob Dylan consoling the jailed boxer and future Denzel Washington character Rubin "Hurricane" Carter, a man convicted of a triple homicide in 1966, who many (Dylan included) believed had been wrongly imprisoned. It's a powerful image -- Carter's body language is practically screaming the heartbreak and desperation of an innocent man rotting away in jail for a crime he didn't commit, and Dylan's slack-jawed expression and entirely too many scarves lets us know that he's already planning on writing a folk song about the man standing in front of him.
Which, of course, is exactly what he did in 1975, producing the appropriately-titled "Hurricane" to talk about the injustice of Carter's plight:
Here comes the story of the Hurricane /
The man the authorities came to blame /
For something that he never done /
Put him in a prison cell but one time he could-a been /
The champion of the world.
And denying us his bout against the champion of Mars.
Say what you want about Dylan's ridiculous hat, but the man clearly achieved a profound understanding of Carter's unfair, decades-long imprisonment, which is represented perfectly by that image.
But, In Reality ...
That photo was 100 percent staged for a People magazine shoot. And those are not the bars of a jail cell.
You see, by this point in the 1970s, Carter was (paradoxically) staying in the Clinton Correctional Facility For Women, which wasn't the maximum security gulag People magazine wanted. In fact, Dylan had just finished playing a concert there for the inmates (along with Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez) before the photo was taken, where he had performed "Hurricane" for one of the last times he ever would.
People magazine was sorely disappointed when they realized that Dylan's innocent muse wasn't locked up in an iron shit-box like the Count of Monte Cristo. So, they set the two men up in a hallway that had a large iron gate (you know, like the ones they have to close up stores at the mall) and staged a dramatic "behind the bars" meeting between Dylan and Carter using the iron gate. Dylan presumably wasn't too thrilled about the idea (hence the thousand-yard stare), but chose to roll along with the bullshit because he figured it would help Carter's case.
The Beatles Only Met With Muhammad Ali Because Sonny Liston Refused To Have His Picture Taken With Them
The year is 1964. It's just days after The Beatles' historic, ratings record-shattering appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and, to celebrate, they had a fun photo shoot with their favorite boxer Cassius Clay, who was coming up on his big title fight with the champion, Sonny Liston. There they are, posing and goofing around with the man who would become Muhammed Ali, five up-and-coming stars about to change the world. We're sure everyone in the room really grasped just how huge of a moment this was.
But, In Reality ...
Just kidding, they barely knew who each other were.
While Beatlemania was exploding, there was no such thing as Muhammad Ali-mania at the time. There was no Muhammad Ali -- just a young fighter named Cassius Clay who (the world believed) was about to be brutally beaten into unconsciousness by the juggernaut, Sonny Liston. Liston was the champion at the time and considered one of the best heavyweights ever (he won the title by knocking out the last champion in the first round, and in a rematch, fucking did it again -- that fight lasted four seconds longer).
On second thought, this is who we want to see fight the champion of Mars.
As for Clay, he was a 22 year old coming off of two fairly pathetic victories (he even got knocked down in one of them). Liston was a 7-1 favorite to send Ali's severed head flying off into the 10th row, somehow still screaming the whole way. Why would the Beatles want to do a photo shoot with this soon-to-be-forgotten boxer, who at best would go down as another name on Liston's long list of victims?
The answer: They didn't. They had made arrangements to meet with Liston. But, he took one look at them and decided he didn't want any part of whatever weird shit these British kids were into. So, the Beatles' publicist dragged them across town to get pics with the challenger. When Clay was late to the shoot, the band wanted just to go -- the whole thing was a big waste of their time.
Finally, Clay arrived, they got their photos, and the band was on their way. Clay's first words after they left: "Who were those little sissies?"
Elvis Shaking Hands With Nixon Was Part Of An Intricate Plot By Elvis To Carry All The Drugs And Guns He Wanted
At first glance, this famous picture of Elvis Presley shaking hands with Richard Nixon in the White House seems either like the King of Rock and Roll being given a celebrity tour of the notorious president's Paranoia Fortress, or the work of a Photoshop artist with incredibly specific interests.
Why the hell would Elvis want to meet one of the most reviled, unhip presidents in American history, unless the meeting was to discuss how much it would cost to decorate Graceland in commemorative White House china?
But, In Reality ...
This was indeed a meeting arranged by Elvis himself, in order to try and score the official badge of a federal drug enforcement agent.
This will take some unpacking. First, you need to remember that this is 1970s Elvis Presley, when the King was fully addicted to prescription drugs and enjoying a lucrative career as a regular performer in Las Vegas. In addition to loving both drugs and the Vegas life, Elvis was a man who was passionate about guns, so much so that he was pretty much always carrying one. (Or two, depending on how many threats on his life had recently been made. That is not a joke.) Consequently, Elvis wanted to be able to freely carry as many guns and drugs on his person as he wanted, anywhere he should happen to decide to go. However, unlike most of us, he was Elvis. So, he actually figured out a way to do it.
According to his less-than-bulletproof logic, the "go everywhere covered in guns and pills" superpower would be his if he could gain an official Federal Bureau Of Narcotics And Dangerous Drugs badge. To acquire this, he chose to go directly to the one guy he knew could throw one his way at the drop of a hat: Richard Nixon, the goddamn president.
His flawless plan fully formed in his mind, Elvis took a red eye to Washington D.C., and delivered a handwritten letter to the White House begging for an audience with Nixon. He then camped out in a nearby hotel under a fake name until his letter found its way into the hands of an aide who was an Elvis fan, and a Nixon/Presley summit was arranged. On December 21, 1970, Elvis rolled into the White House in a purple velvet costume that even Prince would've toned down a bit, and presented Nixon with a giant handgun in a glass display case. That's right -- Elvis was so fucking famous he strolled into the White House and handed the president a gun. He did this without being shot by the Secret Service and, indeed, without his actions being questioned by anyone present.
After buttering up what we can only imagine was a flabbergasted Nixon by talking shit about communists and the Beatles, Elvis casually asked for the federal narc badge he so desired.
And it worked. Nixon chose to grant Elvis his wish, presumably out of the hope that it would hasten Elvis's departure. The King was so happy he hugged the president, but, unfortunately, no one appears to have photographed it.
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