Iconic images?

January 31, 2007 | By Ross Walker | Creative

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.

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Dorothea Lange

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.

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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.

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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?

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Martin Parr

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.

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Fay Godwin

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.

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  • Ross M

    Interesting point you bring up about a higher profile of an image adding to its ‘iconicity’. I personally think the contest blatantly conflates fame and iconicity with some regularity, which, although they obviously effect each other as you point out (the relationship certainly isn’t inversely proportional), buries what to me would be a much more interesting and fruitful exploration of the nature of iconicity (vs. fame) – the very difference between the two, and if and how a picture can be iconic *without* also being famous.

    Not to mention that the whole thing reeks of cultural imperialism. Hate to name names, but the inclusion of the current darling of the British art photo world particularly speaks to this, especially considering some of the more obvious exclusions.

    As an adjective, “iconic” is so fuzzy and mutable that it renders any attempt at objective ranking thereby fairly useless.  Although I appreciate any attempt to spark discussion about art, this “top-10″ format promotes the unfortunate idea that art can somehow be objectively measured and hierarchically ranked, as if it’s merely a frail and nerdy little sibling of competitive sports, but maybe that sort of conflation is required to attract the attention of the public-at-large.  Nevertheless, it seems like a clumsily-conceived contest, but perhaps nothing more could be expected from an institution that has both ‘national’ and ‘media’ in their name.

  • Tim K

    The link to the contest can be found here:

    Wish they would have included a bit about what selection criteria they used. The blurb they have is “photography has the power to move us and motivate us into action”, but I don’t see how the Harold Edgerton, Ansel Adams, Ray Billingham, Martin Parr, Fay Godwin moves or motivates us, and I’m a pretty easily moved and motivated guy. (They are undoubtedly great pictures—although it’s a crime that they are displayed so small on the web site, especially the Ansel Adams.)

    I agree with Ross that it’s a poorly-conceptualized contest. They seemed to be combining “National” iconic images of the UK (the Ray Billingham and Martin Parr are the typical examples, I’d love to consider others) with “Media” iconic images (the beautiful Dorothea Lange Migrant Mother indeed moved and motivated us, there are more examples of documentary and war photography, even the Abu Ghraib photos could be considered in this context).

    They should have given their definition of “iconic”, then chosen either “National” iconic or “Media” iconic… or else just leave the top 10 lists to the E! Channel’s top 10 celebrity breakups, catfights, Oscar dresses, etc…

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