What Makes an Image Iconic?

What Makes an Image Iconic?

Since Jonathan Bachman’s image of Baton Rouge protestor Iesha Evans went viral, a lot of discussion has fomented around whether the image is truly iconic. Some have called the image “legendary” and compared it to other iconic images like the Tianamen Square “Tank Man,” while others have dismissed the comparison as an insult and evidence of liberal bias in the mainstream media.

One of Michael David Murphy's annotated break downs of Bachman's photo.

One of Michael David Murphy’s annotated break downs of Bachman’s photo.

Photographer and Writer Michael David Murphy chimed in a with a detailed visual analysis of the elements that he thought made the image so powerful, and it was this piece that led us to a conversation about iconic images in a special podcast. Here’s a breakdown of the conversation:

2:07 Jonathan Bachman’s Baton Rouge protestor
2:59 What makes an image iconic?
4:30 Does an iconic image need to be technically perfect?
5:58 Does the public underestimate the difficulty of capture a great photojournalistic image?
7:22 Comments from the internet
8:38 The commenter is talking about “everything beyond the frame”
10:23 Michael analyzes Bachman’s image
13:20 Is the image staged? What does this mean in the Instagram age?
17:40 Misremembering Tank Man
18:13 Kent State Massacre
18:45 Is the video of Tank Man more powerful than the still?
19:45 Is Tank Man a western-iconic image?
21:55 Are they iconic because we know “exactly where I was” when it happened?
22:38 Rob Cohen’s Man Throwing Back Tear Gas
26:28 John Tlumacki’s Boston Bombing Massacre
26:56 Nick Ut’s Napalm Girl
27:14 Eddie Adam’s Execution
27:39 Gordon Park’s Colored Entrance
30:17 The fallibility of memory: Ali vs Liston
31:21 The virality of Bachman’s image in a social media age
33:18 Why don’t some prize winning images last the test of time?
34:20 John Stanmeyer’s Signals from Djibouti
37:37 People were “thirsty” for Bachman’s image
39:05 On David Shields’ “war photography is too beautiful”
41:24 Bachman’s image: an “instant classic” or truly “iconic”

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Allen Murabayashi is the co-founder of PhotoShelter.

There are 6 comments for this article
  1. Andrew Molitor at 5:53 pm

    There is a basic problem with this picture. To wit, it is suggestive of events which did not occur. The accident of the posture of the policemen is what makes the picture powerful, it suggests an explosive situation which is exploding. The situation was not particularly unstable, and did not explode.

    In all the other examples, Tank Man and so on, the picture has an immediate truth, it is what it appears be. Thus one, while visually powerful and so on, and while potentially presenting a powerful visual allegory for the present times, is not what it seems. Without that vital bit, the picture becomes contentious, a point of disagreement, and, I think, eventually drops out of sight. Time will tell.

    This feels a bit like the annual ritual of speculating that the favorite for the Derby is probably going to be the next Triple Crown winner.

    • Allen Murabayashi Author at 6:12 pm

      I personally don’t agree that the Bachman image is suggestive of events that didn’t occur. To me, I see an incredible contrast of civilian vs police (and perhaps black vs white – but not as strongly as others might). A woman in a thin dress billowing in the air, and police rightfully geared up in full body armor because 5 cops had been assassinated two days before. Surely part of the “blame” for this photo gaining mass circulation is the photo editors that picked it from a sequence (full sequence here: http://time.com/4403635/ieshia-evans-jonathan-bachman-baton-rouge/ )

      The larger point is that “iconic” images are symbols within our minds, even if we misremember the details (as we talk about with the Ali v. Liston and Tank Man images). They become iconic because they live in the collective memory of the masses.

      Stepping away from the emotion of the image, it will definitely be interesting to see if it has historical legs and becomes a representative moment of BLM.

      • Andrew Molitor at 10:42 pm

        Well, you may not fair enough. The zeitgeist (as I read it) is mixed, which I think is the relevant point here. An iconic image of the sort discussed really doesn’t leave much room for mixed interpretation. Nobody says that the little Vietnamese girl was merely running home after a swim, nobody says that the one man was merely scratching a friend’s ear with his gun. Nobody said Tank Man was just having a bit if a lark.

        Whether we’re simply a more cynical world, or whether the picture is flawed, these are the kinds of things being days here.

  2. Pingback: ACP Now! » What Makes a Photo Iconic?
  3. Veronica Santi at 12:59 pm

    Profound ideas about America’s racial trouble aside, I don’t think this image is iconic at all. And the “loops of cuffs” in it are just an afterthought. and not a powerful one…
    I can do it too: Look at the crack on the asphalt between the two – it’s symbolizes the crack in America’s society…. 🙂

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