An Alternative History of the US in 10 Photographs

Bring American history to life by exploring the backstories of these archive images

By Google Arts & Culture

[Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, Gettysburg] (1863)Original Source: Library of Congress

The Gettysburg Address

The Civil War was not yet over, but victory for the Union was in sight. On November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the Battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln visited the former battlefield at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery.

Before the assembled crowd of around 15,000 people, Lincoln gave a short speech, just 251 words. But those words have entered history as one of the most profound public addresses ever made. This photograph captures the very moment that Lincoln spoke…

…and you can just about see him. There he is - ironically, he's one of the few men in the crowd who's not wearing the iconic stovepipe hat.

The Steerage (1907, printed 1915) by Alfred StieglitzAmon Carter Museum of American Art

The Steerage

In 1907, the pioneering modernist photographer Alfred Stieglitz shot this photograph aboard the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II. This photograph was regarded as emblematic of the era and the nation: welcoming to the poor immigrants from the Old World and offering the chance of a new life.

But the backstory tells a different tale. The ship was actually sailing from America to Europe. It has been suggested that some of the people pictured here were being deported, having failed to pass stringent immigration tests, passed in to law only months earlier.

Liliʻuokalani at Washington Place (1917) by James Watson MoserSmithsonian Asian Pacific American Center

Liliʻuokalani at Washington Place

Liliʻuokalani was the last sovereign monarch of the Hawaiian Kingdom. Months before her death in 1917 she was pictured by photographer James Watson Moser at Washington Place, Honolulu, her home following the overthrow of the monarchy on January 17, 1893.

The coup that took Liliʻuokalani from power was orchestrated by the Citizen's Committee of Public Safety, though a majority of the participants were US and European citizens. The act paved the way for the short-lived Hawaiian Republic, which was annexed by the US in 1898.

Migrant Mother, Nipomo, California (1936; printed early 1960's) by Dorothea LangeThe Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art

Migrant Mother

During the Great Depression, photographer Dorothea Lange was working for the Farm Security Administration, documenting the devastating causes and effects of poverty in the rural United States. On March 6, 1936 she shot one of the most famous images of the 20th Century.

The photo came to stand for the economic injustice of the era. But as the years passed, Florence Owens Thompson, the so-named Migrant Mother, came to resent the image. Thompson disputed Lange's recollection of events, and said it wasn't representative of her personal experience.

Sailors at Naval Air Station Ford Island Watch as USS SHAW Explodes, Pearl Harbor Pearl Harbor Bombing (7-Dec-41) by AmericanThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

December 7, 1941

"A date which will live in infamy" was how President Franklin Delano Roosevelt described December 7, 1941, the day the Japanese Empire attacked Pearl Harbour, and brought the United States into the Second World War.

Japanese planes launched a surprise attack on the Pacific US naval base, catching the military completely off-guard. It was a devastating success - at least in the short-term. This is the moment that the battleship USS Shaw exploded after being hit by three bombs.

American Gothic, Washington, D.C. (1942) by Gordon ParksSpencer Museum of Art

American Gothic

As attention turned to the battles across the seas, the injustices of home were often overlooked. But African American photographer Gordon Parks never stopped searching for images that defined his experience of the Land of the Free.

Working as an associate of the Farm Security Administration, Parks travelled the nation documenting daily life. One day in 1942 while at the FSA offices, he asked Ella Watson, a cleaner, to stop for a moment and pose in front of the star spangled banner.

Parks' image recalls Grant Wood's painting of the same name, inverting the sentiment from white, rural farmers, to urban, black, female workers. For four months, Watson and Parks worked together, taking more photographs at work, at home, and at her church.

Mission: Gemini-Titan IV: Edward H. White performs the United State's first space walk which NASA refers to as an extravehicular activity (E.V.A.)... (June 3, 1965 - June 7, 1965, printed 1991) by James A. McDivittThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

Gemini 4


Before NASA could put a man on the Moon, its astronauts needed to master spacewalking, known officially as extravehicular activity (EVA). On June 3, 1965, Ed White became the first astronaut to complete an EVA, as pictured here.

White found the experience so exhilarating that he was reluctant to terminate the EVA at the allotted time, and had to be ordered back into the spacecraft. "I'm coming back in...", he said, "and it's the saddest moment of my life."

Reaching Out, The DMZ (During the aftermath of the taking of Hill 484, South Vietnam) (1966-10-05) by Larry BurrowsGeorge Eastman Museum

Reaching Out

By 1966, English photographer Larry Burrows had been following the conflict in Vietnam for five long, bloody years. On 5 October, 1966, the US Marine detachment he was shadowing were ambushed on Mutter's Ridge.

US Marine Gunnery Sergeant Jeremiah Purdi walks, with wounded head, across the ravaged mud-soaked hillside. Among the carnage, he seems to be reaching out to his comrade with wounded leg who sits in the mud before him.

Ben Cosgrove, editor of LIFE.com summarised it thus, "Larry Burrows made a photograph that, for generations, has served as the most indelible, searing illustration of the horrors inherent in that long, divisive war — and, by implication, in all wars."

Huey Newton seated in wicker chair (1967) by Photography attributed to Blair Stapp; Composition by Eldridge CleaverNew-York Historical Society

Black Panther

Blair Stapp is said to have produced this iconic image of Black Panther co-founder and leader Huey P. Newton, seated on wicker chair holding a rifle in one hand and a spear in the other, flanked by hide shields, on a zebra skin rug.

With this photograph, Newton is presenting himself as an American citizen, protected by the second amendment, and a proud African warrior. This uncompromising image set him apart from much of the Civil Rights Movement, which emphasised peaceful means of protest.

Barack Obama by Chuck Close (2013) by Chuck CloseSmithsonian's National Portrait Gallery

Forty-fourth President

In 2008, Barack Obama made history as the first African American to be elected president, capping a meteoric rise in politics and concluding a campaign that encouraged progress and optimism. For many, his election signaled increasing racial unity.

But by the time Obama left office in 2016, the feelings of solidarity, which had been fostered in his campaign, languished, and political divides had grown.

Artist Chuck Close took two large-format photographs of President Obama in 2013, one smiling, one serious, reflecting his time in office. Close later used these images to create double portraits in a variety of mediums, including these Woodburytypes.

Statue Of Liberty (2005-07-18) by Margaret Bourke-WhiteLIFE Photo Collection

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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