50 Photo Icons: The Story Behind The Pictures, by Hans-Michael Koetzle, examines fifty acclaimed photographs. (Nick Ut's image of a napalm attack in Vietnam is one of the most famous examples.) The selection includes portraits, fashion, and war photography, and begins with the earliest extant photograph, taken by Joseph Niepce in 1827.
Koetzle, who also wrote Photographers A-Z, describes the circumstances in which each picture was taken, and their places in the careers of each photographer. Further context is provided by images taken during the same sessions as the photos in question, and examples of how the photographs have appeared in print.
The book, published by Taschen, was originally issued in two volumes as Photo Icons I and II. (In fact, the introduction has not been updated, and still refers to "the two volumes".) Each chapter presents an in-depth account of each photograph, together with a full-page reproduction, though only fifty images were selected, thus many classic photos were omitted. (There are no images by Irving Penn or Andreas Gursky, for example.)
Many of the world's most famous photographers - including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Robert Capa, and Sebastiao Salgado - are featured, though each photographer is represented by only one key photograph. Some notably controversial photographers, such as Joel-Peter Witkin and Robert Mapplethorpe, are also included.
Koetzle describes 50 Photo Icons as a "potted history of the medium". Beaumont Newhall's The History Of Photography, Naomi Rosenblum's A World History Of Photography, and Mary Warner Marien's Photography: A Cultural History provide a more complete account of the history of photography. Marien's 100 Ideas That Changed Photography and David Prakel's Visual Dictionary Of Photography are concise guides to photography's technical development.