Searching for the nation’s most iconic photograph…
…As seen by the UK’s National Media Museum.
A very hard task if you ask me…
Searching for the nation’s favourite iconic image is never going to be an easy task, not quite a popularity contest like music charts, but not quite a free vote as the top ten list is already compiled for us by the National Media Museum.
The pre-selected short list of ten shots that are presented to us are an interesting mix of the instantly and unforgettable Dorothea Lange, Migrant Mother, California (who could refute the iconic credentials of such an image), to a more, perhaps, interesting choice of Harold Edgerton’s Bullet through Jack of Diamond.
Harold Edgerton’s Bullet
Faye Godwin and Ansel Adams are present representing landscape work, Julia Margaret Cameron’s Iago perhaps refers to the historical significance of her and her contemporaries’ work, and thankfully lifts the ‘historically significant’ image out of just that category and into one of aesthetic consideration/appreciation; that this image was taken in 1867 when photography was still in its infancy is testament to Cameron.
Julia Margaret Cameron
All the words you might use to extol the virtues of the work by Adams and Godwin nominated somehow seem more accessible, maybe being landscapes we are more used to discussing them, like painting, in this way. Their landscapes (more so their wider body of landscape work), variously described as a kind of personal poetry and in Godwin’s case later published in conjunction with it, lend themselves very well to iconic status by being exemplary examples of their kind. As well as, when further investigated, often illustrating a political awareness coupled with some of the most ‘gracious and yet haunting’ landscape work ever produced.
Jumping over 100 years from Cameron and via Larry Barrow’s South Vietnam, Operation Prairie image, we reach Martin Parr’s New Brighten, Merseyside, from The Last Resort 1983-1986 and Richard Billingham’s Untitled (Flying Cat) . It is great that both these photographers often elevate the ‘everyday’ to the iconic. Citibank Prize and Turner Prize nomination may recognise Billingham’s work in the eyes of the wider art community but it is not only this that grabs your attention, what I find hypnotic are images (when you look at Billingham’s past work as well) that often capture what you know must happen, if you think about it, but what you rarely see. This contrasts well, I think, to Edgerton’s Bullet, where the advances in technology allowed Edgerton to experiment with his marriage of ‘art and science’, undoubtedly highly engaging, whereas Billingham appears to have done almost the opposite, using a disposable camera and out-of-date film, both resulting in what in this context is seen as an iconic image. So, how do you recognise an iconic image?
Alfred Stieglitz and Gertrude Kasebier also feature in these ‘top ten’ of iconic images. And I guess all images shown can be championed for their iconic status but what makes an image iconic, how do we arrive at that judgement and harder still decide which is our own most iconic shot? I think that might be more interesting than the public vote that will decide the ultimate ‘winner’.
Spanning nearly the whole of photographic history all these images arguably have inspired contemporaries and generations after them so have the admiration and recognition to warrant the ‘title’. Perhaps by being politically aware and by acting as a social commentary of the time brings something extra to the viewer as well as overall aesthetic, elevating it above other contemporaries work. Being iconic I guess presumes a certain quality of composition and relevant technique as a given.
Whether you or I would choose this selection, and I personally would like to see a few others included here, is debatable, but what you have to admire is how well the images communicate with us now. A personally admired and professionally recognised image can certainly become iconic and I don’t believe that a photographer needs to have a political awareness in order to produce an iconic image; however, news and popular culture assist in raising the profile of an image surely adding to its iconic tag.
Maybe it is capturing something in the camera that transcends what is merely depicted and without moving onto another whole chapter on semiotics etc. maybe the image needs to talk to us and represent something to us to be come ‘more’ iconic.
If pushed to name my most iconic image I am leaning towards Dorothea Lang’s. What a composition and story, although the more I write the more I am inclined to think that the exposure an image has gained and context are as influential as personal choice. If I were curator of this, narrowing my choice to merely a top ten would be hard enough.