31 Historical Photos Taken Just Before The Iconic Moment

Published January 3, 2017
Updated July 21, 2021

From the Titanic to the moon landing, these rarely-seen historical photos reveal how things looked just before history was made.

Tank Man At Tiananmen Square

Tank Approach Tiananmen Square
On June 5, 1989 in Beijing, an unidentified man commonly known as "Tank Man" helped create history's most iconic image of resistance when he stood down four Chinese tanks amid the Tiananmen Square protests against political corruption and oppression.

Taken just before that iconic image, this photo reveals the tanks as they approach "Tank Man," standing in the middle of the street and about to make history.
Stuart Franklin via Wikimedia

Adolf Hitler's Death

Hitler's Last Days
Taken on April 29, 1945, just one day before his suicide, this is widely believed to be the last photo of Adolf Hitler (right), seen here surveying the ruins of the Reich chancellery in Berlin with his adjutant, Julius Schaub.ullstein bild via Getty Images

Amelia Earhart's Disappearance

Amelia Earhart Before Her Flight
On June 1, 1937, famed pilot Amelia Earhart says goodbye to her husband, George P. Putnam, in Miami, just before setting off on the doomed journey that would end with her unsolved disappearance over the Central Pacific soon after.Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

The Execution Of Nguyễn Văn Lém

Just Before Saigon Execution
South Vietnamese soldiers escort Vietcong prisoner Nguyễn Văn Lém just before his summary execution in Saigon during the Vietnam War on February 1, 1968. The iconic photo of that execution would soon win the Pulitzer Prize, galvanize the antiwar movement, and serve as perhaps the defining image of both the Vietnam War and the 1960s as a whole. Library of Congress

The Titanic

Titanic Departing Historical Photos
The RMS Titanic departs Southampton, England on April 10, 1912, beginning the doomed journey that would end with its sinking and the deaths of more than 1,500 of its passengers in the North Atlantic less than five days later.F.G.O. Stuart via Wikimedia Commons


Approaching Omaha Beach On D-Day
American troops huddle behind the shield in their landing craft as they approach Omaha Beach during the Allied D-Day invasion of Normandy, France on June 6, 1944.

While this storied battle proved to be a decisive turning point in the Western theater of World War II, it was also a bloody assault that saw the awaiting German defenses slaughter thousands of American troops as soon as they emerged from their boats, like the one pictured here.
Wikimedia Commons

The Moon Landing

Armstrong Steps Onto Moon
On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong descends the ladder of the Eagle module, his foot suspended mere inches above the lunar surface, as he prepares to take the first step any human had ever taken on the moon.NASA via Wikimedia Commons

Saddam Hussein's Death

Historical Photos
Just moments before his death, executioners prepare deposed Iraqi President Saddam Hussein for his hanging in Khadimeya, Iraq on December 30, 2006.Al-iraqia via Getty Images

The Assassination Of John F. Kennedy

Kennedy Assassination Historical Photos
The car carrying President John F. Kennedy drives down Main Street in Dallas Texas mere minutes before his assassination on November 22, 1963.Walt Cisco/Dallas Morning News via Wikimedia Commons

Raising The Flag On Iwo Jima

First Flag On Iwo Jima
While the iconic photo of U.S. Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945 became perhaps the defining image of World War II, that photo captured not the first, but the second flag raised there that day.

Pictured here, a group of Marines secure the first flag raised atop Mount Suribachi. It was this flag, and not the second one, that both signaled victory to the American troops below and remained in their memories for the rest of their lives.
Staff Sergeant Louis R. Lowery, United States Marine Corps via Wikimedia Commons

The Gettysburg Address

Historical Photos
One of just two confirmed photos of Abraham Lincoln (identified by the red arrow) at Soldiers' National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on November 19, 1863, about three hours before delivering his historic Gettysburg Address.Matthew Brady/National Archives and Records Administration via Wikimedia Commons

Pearl Harbor

Pearl Harbor Bomber Before Takeoff
This photo, taken aboard a Japanese aircraft carrier just before the country's attack on the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor, and later recovered by U.S. forces, reveals what appears to be Japanese servicemen waving farewell to one of the planes about to carry out that historic offensive, responsible for bringing the U.S into World War II, on December 7, 1941.United States Navy Photographic Center/National Archives and Records Administration

The Hindenburg Disaster

Hindenburg Before Disaster
The German airship Hindenburg, swastikas and all, flies over New York City on the afternoon of May 6, 1937, a few hours before its historic, fiery crash in Manchester Township, New Jersey.AFP/AFP/Getty Images

John Lennon's Death

Historical Photos
On December 8, 1980 in New York City, John Lennon (left) signs an album for Mark David Chapman, the man who would kill him later that night.Paul Goresh via Wikimedia

The Dropping Of The Atomic Bomb

Enola Gay Before Takeoff
Colonel Paul W. Tibbets, Jr. -- pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan -- waves from his cockpit before taking off for that mission on August 6, 1945.Pfc. Armen Shamlian, United States Air Force/National Archives and Records Administration

The Assassination Of Robert F. Kennedy

Robert Kennedy Before Death
Senator Robert F. Kennedy stands among supporters in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, just after claiming victory in California's presidential primary and approximately five minutes before his assassination at the hands of Sirhan Sirhan upon leaving the ballroom.Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

Osama bin Laden's Death

White House Situation Room
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and other members of the national security team sit in the White House Situation Room watching live drone feed of the soon-to-be-completed mission to kill Osama bin Laden on May 1, 2011.Pete Souza, Official White House Photographer via Wikimedia Commons

Boston Marathon Bombing

Boston Marathon Bombers
On April 15, 2013, Islamist Chechen terrorists Dzhokhar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev stand near the finish line of the Boston Marathon just before detonating two explosives there that would kill three and injure at least 250 others.FBI via Getty Images

The Assassination Of Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King's Last Speech
On the night of April 3, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his now famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech at the Mason Temple in Memphis, Tennessee. The following day, at the nearby Lorraine Motel, King was assassinated by James Earl Ray.Bettmann/Contributor via Getty Images

The Attempted Assassination Of Ronald Reagan

Reagan Before Assassination Attempt
President Ronald Reagan waves to onlookers outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington, D.C. just seconds before the unsuccessful attempt on his life carried out by John Hinckley on March 30, 1981. One of Hinckley's bullets struck the president in the chest, landing him in the hospital for 12 days but leaving him capable of making a full recovery.MIKE EVENS/AFP/Getty Images

The First Flight

Wright Brothers' Plane
Wilbur Wright lays at the controls of the damaged Wright Flyer, on the ground after an unsuccessful trial at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina on December 14, 1903.

Three days later at this very spot, after the repairs were completed, Wilbur's brother, Orville, would pilot this same plane in what was history's first sustained flight of a powered, heavier-than-air aircraft.
Wikimedia Commons

Ali Knocks Out Liston

Ali About To Knock Out Liston
On May 25, 1965, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali (right) defended his title against Sonny Liston (left) in Lewiston, Maine. The fight ended with Ali knocking out Liston in the first round, giving us perhaps the most iconic sports photograph ever taken.

The scene pictured here, provides a rare view of the fight just before the knockout -- and just before Ali immortalized himself as the fiery young man that would soon change the world of sports, and the world itself.
-/AFP/Getty Images

The Assassination Of Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Franz Ferdinand
Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria and his wife, Sophie, leave the guildhall in Sarajevo mere minutes before his assassination by Bosnian Serb separatist Gavrilo Princip on June 28 1914. This event would serve as the proximate cause of World War I, thus changing the course of the 20th century immeasurably.Wikimedia Commons

The First American In Space

Alan Shepard
On May 5, 1961 in Cape Canaveral, Florida, U.S. astronaut Alan Shepard sits inside the Freedom 7 rocket just before its launch, which would make him the first American ever in space.NASA via Wikimedia Commons

The Eruption Of Mount St. Helens

Mt St Helens
Washington's Mount St. Helens on May 17, 1980, the day before its devastating volcanic eruption, the largest in U.S. history, and one that killed approximately 57 people, caused more than a billion dollars worth of damage, and sent ash 15 miles into the air, ultimately depositing it across 11 states and turning the Pacific Northwest sky to black.Harry Glicken, United States Geological Survey/Cascades Volcano Observatory via Wikimedia Commons

The 2005 London Bombings

London Bombing
On July 7, 2005, terrorist Hasib Hussain (right) exits a shop at London's King's Cross Station just before suicide bombing a city bus and killing 13 people. Hussain's bomb was but one in a series of four coordinated citywide attacks that killed 52 and injured more than 700.Metropolitan Police via Getty Images

The First Atomic Bomb

First Atomic Bomb
Crewmen unload "The Gadget" -- the nickname for the first atomic bomb -- and prepare it for final assembly soon before its historic test detonation on July 16, 1945 in the Jornada del Muerto desert of New Mexico.United States Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons

The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster

Challenger Smoke
On January 28, 1986, the NASA Space Shuttle Challenger exploded on live television just 73 seconds after takeoff from Cape Canaveral, Florida, killing all seven crew members and grounding the U.S. shuttle fleet for nearly three years amid damning investigations.

Captured less than one second after ignition and too late for anyone to notice, this image reveals the fatal gray smoke escaping from the shuttle's right solid rocket booster. Authorities would later realize that the unusually cold outdoor temperatures had caused this booster's O-ring to fail, allowing burning gas to escape, causing smoke and fire, and ultimately destroying the shuttle.
NASA via Wikimedia Commons

The Assassination Of President William McKinley

Mckinley Before Assassination
In what may be his final photo, U.S. President William McKinley ascends the steps of the Temple of Music in Buffalo, New York on September 6, 1901. Inside the temple mere minutes later, anarchist Leon Czolgosz would assassinate McKinley with two gunshots to the abdomen.E. Benjamin Andrews via Wikimedia Commons

The End Of World War II

Japanese Surrender In World War II
Japanese Foreign Minister Mamoru Shigemitsu (front left), General Yoshijiro Umezu (front right), and subordinates step aboard the USS Missouri just before officially surrendering to the U.S. and putting an end to World War II on September 2, 1945 in Tokyo Bay.United States Army Signal Corps via Wikimedia Commons

Lee Harvey Oswald's Death

Ruby About To Shoot Oswald
Jack Ruby points his gun at Lee Harvey Oswald (second from left) -- the man arrested for assassinating President John F. Kennedy the previous day -- immediately before shooting him dead in the basement of the Dallas police headquarters on November 24, 1963.Ira Jefferson "Jack" Beers Jr./The Dallas Morning News via Wikimedia Commons

As awe-inspiring as it is to see Buzz Aldrin standing next to the American flag on the moon, or to see Marines raising the American flag at Iwo Jima, you can only view these iconic historical photos so many times before they start to lose their meaning.

But when we see, say, Neil Armstrong descending the ladder of the lunar module, about to take humankind's first step onto the moon, we're reminded both of the historical moment's raw reality and of that moment's stakes — of what the world was like in the moments just before everything was about to change.

Sometimes those moments occur just seconds before the big event, sometimes significantly earlier. Either way, they always carry the galvanizing, haunting gravitas of history about to be made.

So while you've likely seen the epochal historical photos of "Tank Man" at Tiananmen Square, of Robert Kennedy lying mortally wounded on the floor, or of the Hindenburg in flames over New Jersey, now it's time to view the rarely seen images captured just before those fateful moments.

Fascinated by these historical photos? Next, take a look at another batch of rare historical photos that depict landmark historical events you had no idea were actually photographed in the first place. Then, enjoy 50 influential photographs that changed our world.

John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Leah Silverman
A former associate editor for All That's Interesting, Leah Silverman holds a Master's in Fine Arts from Columbia University's Creative Writing Program and her work has appeared in Catapult, Town & Country, Women's Health, and Publishers Weekly.
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Kuroski, John. "31 Historical Photos Taken Just Before The Iconic Moment." AllThatsInteresting.com, January 3, 2017, https://allthatsinteresting.com/historical-photos-just-before-iconic-moments. Accessed May 23, 2024.