So Many Photographs,
So Few Icons
by Peter Howe
I've always had a lot of sympathy for television journalists. It takes them so long to achieve so little. I'm not being snotty here. I really do sympathize with them. They may take days to research, tape and edit a piece, flying many thousands of miles in the process, only to have it reduced to two soundbites on the evening news that really don't do justice to the effort that went into them. I had a friend at university who claimed to have missed an English summer because he was tying up his shoelaces at the time. It's the same with a segment on the evening news. 

This feeling was reinforced during our especially hot summer in New York. Corbis' PR director Michele Glisson asked me if I would talk to a reporter from CBS Evening News about what makes an iconic image, and whether or not we (the public in general) suffered from image overload. I readily agreed, partly because it sounded like a fascinating subject, and partly because seeing myself on television is an equally fascinating subject, for me at least. The reporter and his producer were thoughtful and intelligent, and the ensuing discussion was absorbing and made me think about aspects of the subject that I hadn't previously considered. Prior to the interview, I probably spent two or three hours on the phone with the producer, and the interview lasted four hours. The result? One soundbite on the evening news. Oh well, I did at least get on network television even if my mum, who lives in England, didn't get to see me (and the segment, if you can call it that, was far too short to tape). 

What got the reporter interested in the subject was a photograph he saw in a newspaper the day after another lunatic with a gun shot up a Jewish day care center in Los Angeles. The picture showed a line of very young children holding hands being led away from the danger. This image, he thought, was so powerful that it would mark the turning point in the gun control debate. It only took a couple of days for him to realize that it had made no difference at all. What is it, he questioned, that causes a photograph to make a difference? Is it getting more difficult in our image-saturated society for any photograph to break through the noise? These are some of the issues that we discussed in our conversation, but that didn't get shared with the Great American Public. 

When I thought about it, it seemed to me that one of the things that all iconic images share is their scarcity. Make a mental picture of those photographs that have engraved themselves on our collective memory, photographs such as Joe Rosenthal's picture of marines raising the flag on Iwo Jima, or Dorothea Lange's migrant mother. How many do you come up with? Ten, twenty, thirty? If you're like me you can probably remember less than the number of frames on one roll of film. What is it then that makes these few images stick, and even more importantly help change the course of history? 

As you start to pick at the threads of these icons common themes begin to emerge. They are usually produced under extraordinary circumstances but appeal to universal emotions. Take two of the most famous pictures of people being shot, Robert Capa's Loyalist militiaman in the Spanish Civil War, and Eddie Adam's frame of the South Vietnamese police chief executing a Viet Cong suspect. Both are taken at exactly the point of death, and nothing could be more universal than that. They differ in that Capa's picture has a stark grandeur and heroism both absent from the Adams' frame. However, the Vietnam photograph is also as much about revenge and cruelty as it is about death, emotions with which we can all identify. Interestingly though, I think that you can argue that Eddie's photograph had far more effect on ending the war in Vietnam than Capa's did on ending the Spanish Civil War. This was in part because it fitted into a wider framework of growing dissatisfaction with the war, but also because it removed the innocence of the "good-guy, bad-guy" view of the South vs. North Vietnam in the minds of the American voter. 

Similarly, Dorothea Lange's photograph transcends the reporting of a particular set of economic circumstances in the United States during the 1930s, and becomes another powerful icon in the tradition of the Madonna imagery that has been especially important in Western Christian culture. So it seems that icons go beyond the act of reporting--that is their starting point--and touch upon some universal nerve that causes a response in all of us. 

Where does that leave us today? Are we, as the CBS reporter feared, dulled by a surfeit of imagery? Have our universal nerves become deadened because of the flood of visual information that has invaded our daily lives?  My answer for the soundbite, and now, is: "I hope not, and I think not." Just because one picture does not become an icon doesn't mean that no image can pierce the noise-barrier. I tried to think of the most recent photograph that made it into this category, and for me there has only been one so far this decade that I can remember. I believe that the picture of the man standing in front of the tank in Tiananmen Square has the qualities necessary to capture the imagination and be stored in our collective memory for generations to come. It fits all the categories: it's simple; it was shot under extreme circumstances; it has a universal connection that, with its David and Goliath overtones, is biblical and beyond. So far, it hasn't changed anything in China, but like Margaret Bourke-White's concentration camp pictures, it's certainly going to make the revision of history a challenge for those who attempt it. 

That quality for me is the ultimate power of imagery, whether it is John Jr. saluting at his father's funeral, or a photograph of the most absurd and unnecessary object in the Sharper Image catalog. Each are a record of their times, and each can tell the viewer in their own way what life was like then. Some enter the Pantheon of Icons, a sort of Image Hall of Fame, but most remain on their own mundane level. Although the truly great photographs can disturb, enrage, delight or move us to tears, I can't think of one photograph that has no value at all. There are very few human activities for which you can make that claim. 

Peter Howe 
Vice President
Photography and Creative Services 

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