Tuesday, May 4, 2010

American Icon

Today marks the 40th anniversary of the Kent State massacre. If you're like me, when you try to visualize that day you think of this photo:

Kent State, May 4, 1970, John Filo

It's pretty rare for an image to permeate society as thoroughly as this photo has. For many folks, John Filo's shot has come to describe not only that event but Vietnam protests generally, and maybe even the entire U.S. post-war culture clash. Along with Eisenstadt's kissing couple and Ruby Shoots Oswald, it is probably one of the most recognizably iconic photos in history.

Ruby Shoots Oswald, 1973, Robert H. Jackson

But why? What makes some photos iconic while others aren't? There were countless other photos taken May 4th, 1970. Why did that one catch on? Yeah, it's a great shot but just being great isn't enough. There must be other factors at work. Iconic Photos devotes an entire blog to the issue, but it offers no concrete answers. Other sites give a familiar checklist of generally acknowledged iconic shots, while still others recount them in detail. The photos on these sites are generally familiar. We recognize one when we see it. But how does a photo get to that point?

Maybe we should flip the question around and ask, what makes a non-iconic photo?

Ansel Adams is best known for producing several iconic images. Moon Over Hernandez, Half Dome Monolith, etc. These are great photos but they're so well known it's hard to look at them anymore. They've come to define him. That's why a site like this is so powerful. It's a deliberate look at Adams' un-iconic side which looks nothing like his best-known work.

Aw, Kitty, Circa WWII, Ansel Adams

Sally Mann's photos have a similar effect. Although her work hasn't saturated the public consciousness like Filo or Adams, many of her photos are iconic among photographers. Her very style is iconic. So it's a bit jarring the first time one encounters her square format color work.

Untitled, 1989-1992, from Family Matters, Sally Mann

I think the best source of anti-iconic work today is Flickr. It contains hundreds of millions of images, very few of which have reached any level of general recognition. Flickr is a case study in image democracy. Every photo gets the same treatment, same size, same layout, the same opportunity to be seen.

With the rise of Flickr, maybe there's no possibility anymore of any photo becoming iconic. This was the question raised in Ben Roberts' essay last fall on in-sight. I tend to agree with his conclusion that iconic photos are a thing of the past. Maybe so too are iconic albums, paintings, cars, and moments. A rising tide of information has flooded all the high points. Everywhere is sea level.

Here's the scene in the Kent State photo as it looks today from Filo's vantage point.

Kent State, Memorial to Jeffrey Miller, 2007, M. Stewart

Pretty nondescript. Pretty non-iconic.

Here's the iconic version:


Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

I think you're using Flickr as a red herring Blake. How is it any different than photography blogs? We pass over images we see on blogs just as quickly.

I wonder if Vivian Maier's work would have received the same attention if it first appeared on Flickr rather than on a blog. I suspect so...

cacv12000 said...

I saw a modern iconic image on the NY Times website a few weeks ago...


Anonymous said...

oh, and before I forget I believe i've read a few things about the demise of true rock stars and pop stars. It's one of the reasons Lady Gaga is so popular in many people's estimation.

And I've heard people say that Lost will mark the end of the iconic TV show. Movies? Yep, Avatar was certainly iconic, but look what it took to get to that point?

Frank Nachtman said...

I can't look at the Ruby image without thinking about the improved, rock and roll version.