Iconic? Says who?

April 12, 2012

Iconic imagery is entirely subjective.  Some images pop up in books, on t-shirts, on the news because they have been wildly heralded as being iconic but there cannot be a simple set of standards that makes images iconic.  Martin Kemp, an author of books on imagery, is often referenced for his breakdown of the definition of iconic imagery.  His arguments, while rich and valuable, are not always lined up with everyone else’s definitions.  Every culture, subculture, discourse community, neighborhood, nation, race, age group could find imagery iconic or empty.  Showing a picture of the sailor kissing a woman in the streets after returning home means nothing to an indigenous culture who has little knowledge of American history.  That’s the beauty and curse of it all.

My breakdown of iconic imagery therefore is split into three sections and each has a specific example.

1. Stirs Natural Emotion

Some of the most iconic images as deemed by experts do one thing above all else, they make us feel something. They make us sad, angry, depressed, happy.  Take for instance, the Nick Ut photo of a young girl in the streets of Vietnam after a napalm attack.  It won the Pulitzer.  Yes it captures a time in history but above all else is makes us sad and emphatic with the people in the photo who are in clear danger.

2. Startle/Confuse

Iconic photos sometimes have no explanation and make us wonder what is going on contextually that would result in such a photo.  Diane Arbus, one of my favorite photographers, often shot bizarre instances with people who could be deemed strange by social norms.  Her images are iconic because they make us wonder and confuse us.  They sometimes even make us uncomfortable resulting in us turning away or staring for hours.

3. Make people remember

Iconic images also harken to a time or place or period that is important or relevant to a group of people.  For Americans, September 11th’s attacks are etched in our memories partly due to the images that were shown over and over again on news and in print and online.  Those images became iconic and makes us remember a specific day.   My mother always refers to the picture of JFK Jr., as a child, saluting his father during his funeral procession.  She remembers that time and that place when she sees that image and that in turn makes her feel specific emotions.


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