Recently I was asked if I could name a “bucket list” of iconic places in the world for photographers. It didn’t take long. Certain places attract photographers like magnets attract iron filings; we are drawn to them without quite knowing why. Nor do we absolutely have to know. For some of us it will simply be the joy of collecting the trophy pictures we’ve always wanted to take. But for others, myself included, the exercise has something more to do with understanding both ourselves and the world. Here is my list (not terribly original, I’ll admit), with my reflections on why these places are iconic to me. I’m absolutely sure that everyone will have a different top ten. But just as going there and taking the pictures was a deeply rich experience, so too is the simple act of asking which ones—and why?

1. Antarctica


(Jim Richardson)

Even today, Antarctica overwhelms us. Already iconic, seared into our imaginations from the tales of heroic exploration and tragic, fatal failure of the last century, Antarctica overpowers us from afar, humbling even seasoned travelers, more vast in reality than our imaginations can muster. Relegated to obscurity at the bottom of our schoolroom globes, our scant knowledge ill prepares us for the stunning outbursts of towering mountain ranges ripping across the face of the deep blue sky, the sublime blue and turquoise icebergs and glaciers, and the inconceivable abundance of life. Indeed it is the limitless nesting colonies of penguins, always comical but utterly indifferent to human visitors, that ultimately define Antarctica as a world unto itself.

Iconic Shot: Besides penguins? Any view that encompasses Antarctica's vast scale and distances.

2. Venice, Italy


The Grand Canal in Vencie, Italy (Jim Richardson)

Graceful, beautiful, and constantly enchanting, Venice is also a prime example of the tragic, all-consuming lust for wealth, power, and sordid ambitions. That all these contradictions coexist in such a sumptuous milieu makes it, rightly, a destination synonymous with worldly experience. “See Venice and die” puts the city squarely at the ultimate conclusion of any bucket list. For the Victorians life was not quite complete, youth not adequately finished until Venice was crossed off the list. Yet it surmounts all the clichés; it's never tawdry, always remarkable. Today, this island city of lost hegemony is a museum unto itself, a time capsule we can’t quite bear to relinquish. It is so ravishing.

Iconic Shot: Gondolas on the Grand Canal

3. Machu Picchu, Peru


Peru. Machu Picchu. (Jim Richardson)

Lost to most for 400 years under the encroaching jungle of the high Andes, Machu Picchu’s magic was rekindled after iconic explorer Hiram Bingham rediscovered it in 1911 and brought it to the modern world. A century later it is still astounding, evoking wonder for the Inca kings and their opulent retreat in the high mountains, a stupendous sanctuary wrapped by surrounding mountains, plunging valleys, and ever swirling clouds. Even the llamas seem to be able to hear their ghosts. The stone houses and avenues, the plazas and sacred sites all speak to us of life still present but unseen.

Iconic Shot: From the terraces above, where Hiram Bingham made the original photographs for National Geographic magazine

4. Taj Mahal, India


(Jim Richardson)

The Taj Mahal is famous for being beautiful (certainly), famous for being the symbol of enduring love (perhaps,) and most of all famous for being famous. Even if it were not sublime symmetry set in stone, its proportions elegantly tempered by centuries of monumental building by the Mughal rulers of central India, it would still beguile us for its place in the history of world travel. For centuries it was the “must see” tourist sight of them all. Millions of photographs have been taken from the exact same spot at the reflecting pool, each “perfect” in the same way that the marble monument itself is perfect. In some ways taking that picture is a pilgrimage of its own, seeing for oneself what millions of others have also seen.

Iconic Shot: Down the reflecting pool, framing the Taj between the minarets

5. Easter Island


(Jim Richardson)

Standing in their haunting rows, Easter Island's statues, called moai, arouse our subconscious thoughts. The stone statuary, at once unreal and yet known to us deeply, conjure up ancestor worship in exactly the way the islanders, lost in the vast Pacific, likely intended. Our imaginations reel at the solitude: Polynesians made their epic journey across the vast Pacific to this speck of an island, and then no one else came for nearly a thousand years. Left to their own imaginings, the islanders invented their own version of eternity. In the darkness, under the southern starry night, the hulking statues have the power to haunt the mind like few other places on Earth.

Iconic Shot: Tongariki with the long row of moai looming above

See all 10 iconic places at National Geographic

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