What Makes for an Iconic Photograph?

When exploring the power of images and their impact on journalism and society as a whole, it’s important to examine exactly what it is about an iconic or epic photographic that qualifies it as iconic. I did some research and personal reflection and came up with the following list of my qualifications to declare a photo “Iconic”.

  • Excellent Composition
  • Emotional Connection
  • Readily Identifiable subject matter
  • Snapshot Of A Moment In Time

First I think it’s really important for a photograph to be all around technically, therefore visually striking. Taking into consideration the composition of the photograph as well as the artistic choices of the photographer and their relevancy to the storytelling aspects of the image. These choices might include cropping, lighting, color filter choices and presentation of the photograph. This is not to say that amateur photography isn’t welcome, however it would be difficult to pronounce a photograph iconic if the image was of poor quality.

Photographs that in some way evoke an emotional response from the viewer are often cited as iconic images. Photos that display raw human emotion, where people are caught in a moment of human tragedy or glory that we can relate to often strike a chord with the viewer. The photograph below of firefighters from the FDNY learning of the death of Osama Bin Laden could be considered an iconic photograph under the category of an emotional element. It could also be considered as an excellent composition, and additionally the connection of the FDNY to the 911 disaster is one that everyone in the United States and I would beg world-wide can easily make. For an image to qualify under this premise, it would have to be a big enough event that most people would be able to easily connect the photo to the iconic incident to which it is linked.

Firefighters of Ladder Company 4 — which lost seven men on 9/11 — perched together on their aerial ladder, watching a news bulletin in Times Square declaring that Osama bin Laden was dead on May 2.

Another photograph that generates a connection for the viewer is one of protesters being maced by riot police in California. People can typically unite in anger against the unjust actions of law enforcement and governments. Images like this where people are being subjected to unnecessary and cruel violence- especially an image as visually striking as this with the orange color of the pepper spray – generates a gut reaction in people that makes the image stick in their mind.

A University of California Davis police officer pepper-sprays students during their sit-in at an "Occupy UCD" demonstration in Davis, California. (Jasna Hodzic)

Another one of my qualifications for an image to be considered iconic is that it is immediately apparent what is happening in the photos. In both photos above it is immediately clear what is happening. You may not have to know exactly where or when the photo above of the students being maced took place, but it’s obvious what is happening. The photos below are iconic images because they are visually striking and it’s clear what’s happening. Both photos also feed the human fascination with the power of nature. Humans love to behold the amazing and awesome (however sometimes very destructive) power of mother nature, and harrowing photographs like these, that show just how helpless we humans are at the hand of mother nature never cease to evoke awe and wonder in the heart of the viewer.


Lastly another one of my qualifications for an image to be considered iconic are pictures that capture an iconic moment in time, an image that magically captures a person’s emotions through their facial expression. A photograph that people look at and think, “If this photo had been taken a second later, it wouldn’t be nearly as good”, is exactly the type of photo that can be defined as iconic. The image below of Ali versus Liston in the May 1965 iconic fight is considered one of the greatest sports photos of all time. Not only is the fight itself iconic, but the image sums up not only the result of the fight, but Ali’s fighting style and personality. Had this photo been taken a second before or after it was actually taken, it wouldn’t be nearly as great. Both boxers’ facial expressions and body positions tell a tale of a champion boxer who when he stated he was the greatest boxer in the world, he wasn’t bragging, he was merely stating a fact.

Ali vs. Liston, May 25, 1965 in Lewiston, Maine. Photo taken by Neil Leifer.

I wanted to also include some examples of photos that some may consider iconic, but that I do not in accordance with my guidelines I previously stated. The photos below do not meet my criteria of iconic photography. The first photos is taken of a woman quarantined for radiation after the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan. Although the photograph may strike an emotional chord on many levels, it has to be viewed in context. Knowing the back story of the tragedy and all of the horrible aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami (some of which we don’t even know yet that will continue to surface for years), we can certainly view this image as an upsetting consequence of an event that itself produced many iconic images. Again, my qualifications for an iconic image is one that requires no explanation.

A girl in isolation for radiation screening looks at her dog through a window in Nihonmatsu, Japan on March 14. (Photo taken from Buzz Feed).

Another photo that i don’t believe qualifies as an iconic photographs is the photograph below of mourners at a vigil for the 2011 Oslo terrorist attacks. Although the photo is beautifully shot and it clearly displays an element of emotion we cannot easily tie it to an event. Not to say the specific event itself has to be easily identifiable from the photograph (most tornado damage photographs could be interchangeable, like the photograph above of the man’s emotional reaction to the Joplin tornado damage) however it is the absence of any clues tying the emotional aftermath to the event itself that makes it fall short of my iconic list.

Friends and loved ones gather at the Oslo cathedral to mourn 93 victims killed in twin terror attacks from a bombing in downtown Oslo and a mass shooting on Utoya island on July 22. (Photo taken from Buzz Feed).

I would of course be willing to revise this list if someone proves it faulty. This is of course just my opinion subject to my own personal beliefs about art, photography and journalistic photography choices related to iconic photography. Photography may be just a hobby for me, but I hope some day my photos displays even half the importance in subject matter and conveys anywhere near the emotional quality of the photos above, iconic or not.

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2 thoughts on “What Makes for an Iconic Photograph?

  1. ShaneWozEre says:

    I love your views on this though I would personally include that it has to tell a story, and obviously in an iconic photo it has to tell a story that everyone can somehow relate to and can instantly relate to without the need for context (for example the photo of the woman in isolation only becomes powerful when you are given information and circumstances, as with the Oslo cathedral – without context its just a few girls crying at an average funeral?)

    Excellent composition and relatable subject matter can be sacrificed in an iconic photo if it serves the story that is being told. Also, readily identifiable subject matter isn’t needed if the subject matter is presented to you in a way which has identifiable parallels. (for example this iconic photo

    is identifiable to us because of the parallels it draws to what we expect to a normal portrait photograph. We identify with the pose and the composition of the young lady – we’ve seen it so many times before – but it’s what we aren’t used to, juxtaposed with that which we are – which makes it iconic)

    Thanks again for the article. Really made me think for a couple of minutes.

    • cdexel says:

      Glad you enjoyed the article! Yeah, I 100% agree. What’s funny is that I was writing this as part of a blog assignment for a multimedia storytelling class! I guess I should remember to preface, because I think that’s the most important thing about an iconic image. Thanks for the comment!

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