What Makes an Image Iconic

Everyone has seen them: those images that draw some emotion; those images that we consistently connect with; those images like Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa; those images that still have meaning regardless of time and culture. Those images are iconic. But why? What qualities or constructs contribute to timeless pieces?  Martin Kemp (professor of History of Art at Oxford University) says  “There is no necessary set of clearly defined factors that are infallibly shared by all iconic images.”  This could be true because if there were clearly defined guidelines and factors that guaranteed the iconic factor of an image, everyone would be able to produce one.  Even though a clear cut definition probably doesn’t exist, there are some reoccurring themes present in most images the world has deemed as iconic.

  1. Mass of recognition:  This is one of the biggest factors that makes an image iconic.  It should be so well-known that it becomes the norm for everyone to have seen it.  They are recognizable regardless of their age and time.  Most iconic photos outlast the author and the person (if applicable) in the image.
    Photo of the first man on the moon
  2. Iconic images perfectly captures an event or artistic style:  If the image captures an event or style, it will most likely be referenced anytime the event or style is discussed.  Eventually the image will become synonymous with the topic.  For example photos of the supermodel Twiggy made her an icon of the 60s.  According to Julia Deluliis “The key here is that the image becomes so closely associated with the topic (idea, person, event, etc) that the image gets discussed almost every time the topic is discussed.”

    This photo of twiggy is iconic of the 60s and propelled twiggy to be an icon herself.

  3. Carries multiple associations for many people: Iconic images can appeal to a variety of  people and host multiple associations.  For example, the photo of the swastika can symbolize several different things for people of different cultures and backgrounds.
  4. Impact on Public Opinion:  In image that shapes public opinion or directly results in action can become iconic.  However this type of image can be the most difficult to capture and prove.

    Lynching; Lawrence Beitler, 1930
    Thousands of whites descended on an Indiana park to hang a pair of black men accused of raping a white woman.

  5.  Provokes Emotion:  When an image emotionally resonates with its audiences it can become iconic. These are the images that pull at your heart-strings making you feel empathy, sympathy, pride, and other emotions.

    Photo capturing the spirit of America after WWII

Although there are possibly thousands of opinions about iconic images, the ones above are general ideas.  Martin Kemp authored a book, Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon,  in which he chronicles the exploration of the topic and list several images that people consider iconic.  He writes:

“…there are tendencies that are recurrent to varying degrees in various permutations. Some are concerned predominately with meaning; a simplicity of message that is once definitive and compelling but that is also open to a broad, rich, and varied series of associations; the ability to work with both generic and specific meanings; and openness to varied kinds of individual and collective engagement; a special interplay with shared human values; the focus of devotional or cult practice; the forging of collective identity.”

For more information on Kemp’s book and to see the iconic image detailed in his book, go here.

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