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Photo Spotlight: What Makes An Image Iconic?

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In a digital age saturated with visual content, thousands of pictures come and go, never to be thought of ever again. However, for those few photos that manage to stand the test of time, the only way to describe them is “iconic”. Though the word originally referred to paintings of holy figures in Christianity, it has come to encompass a person or thing representative of a particular time, place or ideal. And whether it’s political, social, cultural or sexual, there are pictures that still make a striking statement, decades after they were first presented to the world.

Authentic representations of world issues

Not all photographers will necessarily know if history is being made in front of their lens, or that they are about to capture an era-defining moment, but many iconic images reveal the truth about key social and political issues of their time. A good example of this is the viral photograph of Sudanese protester Alaa Salah from April 2019.


In the image, Salah is standing on top of a car, surrounded by people, pointing to the sky. As well as depicting the Sudanese revolution, which ultimately removed President Omar al-Bashir from power after thirty years, the photograph was held up as a symbol of female strength, leadership and activism. Salah’s stance in the image also drew comparisons with the Statue Of Liberty and Kandaka, a Nubian queen of ancient Sudan.

However, a photo doesn’t necessarily need to be uplifting or empowering to reach iconic status. A heartbreaking image of Texan nurse Caty Nixon crying at home after delivering a stillborn baby highlights the emotional turmoil regularly experienced by those working in healthcare in the United States. Likewise, it’s hard to forget the photograph showing the 2015 death of three-year-old Alan Kurdi, a Syrian refugee who drowned after the inflatable boat on which he and his family left Turkey capsized.

The child’s body was photographed on the beach by Turkish journalist Nilüfer Demir, who told CNN Turk: “This is the only way I can express the scream of his silent body.” Though some argued it was inappropriate to photograph this tragic incident at all, the world stood up and took notice of this newfound representation of the migrant crisis’s human cost, and the image was credited with the subsequent increase in charity donations for migrants and refugees.

Symbols of pop culture stardom

Pop culture figures are used to being regularly photographed, but it takes a special kind of image to really make an impact in the world. One strategy is to capture celebrities at a turning point in their career. A perfect representation of Hollywood stardom is visible in Terry O’Neill’s photo of Faye Dunaway, taken the night after she won her first Best Actress Oscar for Network in 1977. O’Neill told The Cut that he wanted to capture “the real story” of the morning after when Oscar-winners “realise suddenly they’re getting all these offers to do films, their value goes from $100,000 to $10 million, and they’re just sort of stunned”.

Another legendary career-defining moment captured on camera is Marilyn Monroe filming The Seven Year Itch, as she stands over a New York subway grate in the movie’s most famous scene. Possibly the best representation of her sex symbol status, the image also reportedly angered her then-husband Joe DiMaggio, and his jealousy was partly responsible for the couple’s divorce just weeks later. The impact of this image endures, though, and over fifty years since her death she is still considered the epitome of Hollywood glamour.

However, recent years have shown that iconic celebrity photographs can sometimes be about quantity rather than quality. Jennifer Aniston made an unforgettable introduction on Instagram when her selfie of the Friends cast attracted so much attention—over eight million likes in under 24 hours—that the platform crashed. Its impact is unsurprising given Friends’ impressive legacy, and the nostalgia millions of people around the world feel towards the show. Another celebrity photo which raised the bar was taken at the 2014 Academy Awards. Organised by host Ellen DeGeneres, the Oscars selfie featured a plethora of megastars including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep. It is the fourth most retweeted post on Twitter as of February 2020, and has been parodied by a number of other famous faces including Joan Collins, Usain Bolt, and even The Simpsons.

Unexpected twists

The element of surprise is sometimes all that’s needed to boost an image from good to great. Some of the most iconic images of our time feature people we already recognise, but who look very different on this occasion. The photo of Einstein sticking his tongue out is one of the pictures we now most commonly associate with him, though his unconventional expression came as a huge surprise at the time.

Photographer Arthur Sasse captured the image as the German-born physicist, tired of posing for photos, left his 72nd birthday party. When he was called upon to smile, he cheekily stuck out his tongue instead, and Einstein loved the photo so much he asked for nine copies. Similarly, Winston Churchill’s surly expression revealed exactly how he felt after photographer Yousuf Karsh pulled his cigar out of his mouth for the shot. This spontaneous look of defiance is rarely seen in political leaders, making it one of the most iconic portraits of the twentieth century.

Though these are examples of spontaneity, staged images with a twist can be just as effective. Take the groundbreaking 1991 photo of a heavily pregnant Demi Moore, taken by Annie Leibovitz for the cover of Vanity Fair. The picture was purposefully sexualised, with editor Tina Brown describing it as: “a new young movie star willing to say, ‘I look beautiful pregnant,’ and not ashamed of it”.

Such a provocative representation of a pregnant body had never before been seen in mass media, and it paved the way for the celebrity nude maternity shoot as we know it. And, of course, there’s Tennis Girl. The simple yet sexy surprise meant that Martin Elliot’s 1976 photo of his then-girlfriend Fiona Butler sold millions of copies through publishing giant Athena, and the iconic snap is still being widely distributed today.

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