Photography News

What Makes a Photo Iconic?

September 2, 2016 by Rene Anthony

While every year sees an abundance of photos that capture our attention and effectively go ‘viral’, it usually takes something special to leave an enduring impression. This year has been no different, including the use of a certain ‘buzz’ word once reserved for a select choice of photos. That word? Iconic.


Cast your mind a couple months back. The mood in the US state of Louisiana reached boiling point after the police shooting (and subsequent death) of an African-American man, Alton Sterling. The following days saw protestors confront police, and in a moment of brave defiance, Leshia Evans was captured peacefully standing her ground as heavily armed riot police approached.



More recently, Usain Bolt’s mid-race grin was among the standout images of the Olympics, with two photographers shooting the special moment in almost identical shots. And around the same time, the sad and tragic photo depicting a “dazed and bloodied” boy in Aleppo, Syria, was also described as iconic. These are but a few examples from this year.


Without discussing the individual merits of each photograph, has the appropriation of the term iconic lost the meaning it once had? Given the term is now used rather loosely, and often in the immediate reverberation of an event, has it become the calling card of a great photo, rather than a timeless one?


Think about some of the most iconic photographs of all time. The American sailor kissing a nurse in Time Square. Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima. The protestor in Tiananmen Square who defiantly stood in front of a convoy of tanks. Marilyn Monroe standing on a subway grate with her skirt blowing up. The Vietnamese girl running without clothes down the highway after a misdirected napalm attack.



When one considers these iconic photos, it’s hard not to draw similarities between what defined them. Most predominantly, this concerns the timeless nature of the work – preserved through time and identified effortlessly, including by generations born after the moment. In this sense, the moment endures beyond the people and content involved. With all of the examples mentioned before, it would be surprising if you were unable to recall the images in your mind, even with the limited descriptions provided.


These images also represent a historical or societal point of inflection, where our daily lives and cultural proceedings were shifted because of a significant event (often, catastrophes), style, or person. People have been caught as the subject of iconic photos because of their divisive nature, the profound impact they had on the world, or the joy they brought to so many. With this in mind, one can identify that each of these pictures makes an emotional connection with the viewer – one that allows the viewer to carry their own association(s).


Another train of thought is that these iconic photos often capture a moment in time, which we will never see again – an element that makes them unique, and heightening their emotional resonance. But despite these photos being one-offs, they cast light on events, or people, that society benefits from learning about.


Today’s ‘iconic’ images could have some meaning and cultural impact in the future. But adorned by an oversupply of photos in our daily lives, the word’s use has become more synonymous in separating great photos from good ones, whereas it should be about identifying unforgettable images.


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