Writing on photography

What is an Iconic Photograph: Iconography and Iconoclasm

Writing recently on the manipulation of historic images I veered briefly into a discussion of iconic photographs, and began to wonder how changes in the ways we produce and consume images might effect this photographic ‘genre’. As this threw up a number of questions for me it seemed like a topic that would be worth returning to. I had three things on my mind at the time, specifically: do ‘iconic’ images still emerge in an era of supposed photo saturation, where exactly do they emerge from, and are they in any sense still relevant?

A discussion of iconic photographs is made difficult because there is no consensus about the exact characteristics that make a photograph iconic. A school of thought I encountered while at university used a very restrictive and literal definition, which stems from the religious origins of the word ‘icon’. Iconic images, it was suggested, mirror the posings and compositions of western religious art. They touch off a deeply imprinted visual sensitivity, created by centuries of exposure to particular poses and compositions, and as a result resonate in the mind with great significance. According to this theory a photograph like Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl might derive its power from its similarities to paintings of the Crucifixion.

Others dismiss this idea, arguing that these images simply reference poses and situations that all humans can relate to. The pieta for example (against which a photographs like W. Eugene Smith’s Tomoko Uemura in Her Bath is often compared) is simply a powerful symbol of one person caring for another, whether you know the art-religious history or not. The idea that iconic images find their power in an innate, almost genetic, knowledge of western religious art traditions also poses difficult questions about the role of such photographs outside the Christian world. Would the response to that Nick Ut photo be the same or different in, for example, an Islamic culture with abstract traditions of religious art?

A piece by Evie Salmon offers a rather different definition of iconic photography. While nodding to the significance of the religious origins of the term, she argues that perhaps an iconic photograph is one which is not simply pictorial, but which like a religious icon exists ‘between form and content’ and which is ‘simultaneously an image and an idea’. She cites several examples of photographs from the advertising and fashion genres, which show celebrities (icons) but which also impart specific ideas about what these people represent. For me this definition perhaps goes a little too far the opposite way, becoming rather wide, but still it’s a nice counter-point to the restrictive art historical interpretation.

Another more exhaustive attempt to explore what makes an iconic photograph was carried out by Martijn Kleppe, who gave a talk on his findings as part of the World Press Photo Awards Days in 2013. Kleppe suggests multiple characteristics that might be important to a photograph attaining iconic status, and some factors that interestingly have less to do with the form of the photograph itself but rather the way it is subsequently handled. Amongst other things he discusses the significance of the way in which the photograph reference other images (whether religious art or not), the importance of widespread publication to cement the status of the image as iconic, and the significance of the passage of time in determining what is remembered as important and what is not.

Definitions rather unsatisfactorily dealt with, I move on to the main questions. First, in the current context, where big events are documented by ever larger numbers of photographers, producing ever more photographs, is it still possible for images to emerge as as iconic or are they drowned out by the competition? Going very simply on the basis of how many people are continuing to discuss iconic photography it seems the answer is yes, they do still emerge, or at least people continue to label photographs as ‘iconic’ according to an array of different criteria. Equally the term seems to be employed beyond the relatively specialist arena of writers and theorists on photography, for example it was widely used by all sorts of commentators to describe Samuel Aranda’s 2011 World Press Prize winning photograph of a Yemeni mother holding her tear gassed son. Another question perhaps is the extent to which the use of this term by one influential observer leads others to follow suit.

In answer to my second question, the source of these images, it seems interesting that in most cases contemporary photographs described as iconic seem to mainly be those produced by professional photographers. Despite the massive proliferation of image capture devices and apparent rise of citizen journalism it still remains relatively rare for an iconic image to emerge from an amateur source. This may well reflect Kleppe’s point about the significance of widespread publication in defining an image as iconic, as conventional publication remains largely the preserve of professional photographers. The only relatively recent exception to this that comes to mind is the photograph taken by an American soldier of a hooded prisoner at Abu Gharib, an image which has evident echoes of the crucifixion both in terms of composition and in terms of the photograph’s possible readings. Interestingly other photographs bear far stronger similarities, but were not widely published presumably because of concerns over their depicition of nudity (and perhaps the victim’s anonymity).

My final question is are these images still relevant? If it were possible for them to disappear amongst the dazzling array of competitor images, would it matter? To play devils advocate for a moment, perhaps these iconic images have a usefulness as a reference point of sorts for navigating a much photographed subject, a landmark by which one can plot the topography of a visual landscape. As the photographs that emerge of an event like the Syrian Civil War become more numerous, and more ideologically and conceptually varied it becomes harder to orientate oneself amongst them. These few icons, for all their problems, become something of a familiar reference point, a point of comparison for good or bad against which other photographs can be considered. Oddly Syria seems for the time being to be a conflict which has largely evaded reduction to a handful of such images.

Returning to the art historical interpretation of iconic photographs, a common argument against them is that they often seem to imply there is some inherent value in suffering for its own sake alone, that there can be some positive which will ultimately emerge from being tear gassed, napalmed, poisoned by mercury or tortured. Equally problematic is that these images often become reductive simplifications of vastly complex events and issues. Maybe what we maybe need more than ever is more complexity in photography, more insight into the topics of the day. Just as reformation reformers smashed the statues and icons of Catholic churches, believing them to be idolatrous distraction from God, perhaps there is an argument for treating iconic photographs with even more suspicion than we have in the past.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.


  • Or else you might follow Hariman and Lucaites, who wrote No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture and Liberal Democracy. A complex argument, but basically: there are photographs, such as the single man in Beijing standing in front of the tanks, which create for the great babble and hubbub of a more or less democratic society a common reference point which enables argument and deliberation. Such images do not have a stable meaning, and are interpreted and reinterpreted across many media and occasions; but they offer material not just for parody or imitation but also for critical commentary and collective reflection.

    • Thanks for commenting Michael, that’s another nice alternative interpretation, slightly fits into what I said about these types of photographs as reference points as well I think.

  • I should think it would be useful for you to converse with Mike Parker in Lancaster UK I will arrange the conversation if you like and have not already done so yourself. His formulation of photographic iconography,
    consists of four inter-connected conditions comprising, a) distinctness of
    image, b) durability of image, c) reproducibility of image and d) the tragic-dramatic
    narrative inherent in the image.

Writing on photography