MULTIPLICITY VS ICONICITY
Do you ever wonder how many images you see in a day? Visual representations come waves after waves throughout our days and solicit our eyes regardless of our activities. This flow of images is diverse, continuous and seems natural. At home we face photographs from relatives and friends, when reading newspapers, watching news on TV, browsing our emails and whatever the itineraries and means of transportation we use, images are part of a usual background. We can’t escape pictures for we need them; we rely on them for information, entertainment, and reminders of memories; but mostly as means of communication.
From companies to institutions and professional photographers to amateurs, photography has turned into a crucial mode of expression that knows no barriers of age, gender, social or economic classes and no limitation in skills. The digital era has opened wide the roads of worldwide interchanges and images surround us more than ever before. But from all the pictures you’ve seen today, how many of them touch you at a deep emotional level? How many of them could you remember?
“It’s really weird, photography has never been so popular, but it’s getting destroyed. There have never been so many photographs taken, but photography is dying,” deplored the Mexican photographer Antonio Olmos.[i] This fatal prediction might not alarm you, given the intensive use we make of images today. Each and every activity of ours is a good enough reason now, to draw our cameras, smartphones, tablets or whichever recording device we have ready in hand, to instantly freeze the moment at random, not only for us to see, but to share widely.
Thanks to images shared through digital networks, we have found the way to extend our eyes in order to reach others wherever they may be on the planet, and export images of ourselves at the same time. Photography is an extension of the human eye, in that individuals and societies alike make use of it in a fashion that is completely new. Our own, our friends’, our families’, strangers’, big or small companies’ lives are shot and shared to feed digital representations, as the way to exist in the ‘global village’ we live in. As for instance people who choose to engage in citizen journalism and denounce through pictures, abuses in fields and places where professional cameras are not interested in going or where they are forbidden, as it is still the case in the Syrian civil war. Then the best way for these images to be seen worldwide in order to draw awareness and be forwarded by international media is through digital networks. The latest pictures of Syria come from civilians trying their best to fill the gap left by professionals denied access to or evacuated from this dangerous country.
In 1964, Marshal McLuhan in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man introduced the concept of “extension” to refer to the media.[ii] The way he put it, humans use technology to enhance their physical and cognitive abilities such as speed, memory, strength, hearing or seeing. Whether we have heard of this concept or not, many people may understand to what extent media extend the selves, but few are reflective when it comes to what McLuhan called “amputations”: the counterpart to extensions. According to his studies, as we confide more and more in technological advancements, we amputate, or lose skills. For instance, the telephone extends the voice but amputates penmanship, and the extension of the automobile amputates the need for a highly developed walking culture. In asserting that photography is being destroyed, Antonio Olmos was pointing to an amputation of our visual senses due to photographic enhancements. In addition because of the overabundance of images, which can be altered and manipulated by powerful software, a general mistrust has risen regarding images. Although they are omnipresent, their actual impact is undermined. The multiplicity of photographs has numbed our visual organ.
McLuhan argued that too frequently we choose to ignore or minimize the amputations. For example, we do not want to be made to think about the fact that the amputations resulting from automobiles have made us more obese and generally less healthy. Since more than one amputation can be related to a specific device, then the disappearance of iconicity in photography is yet another one. If I talk to you about, “the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square on VJ Day”, “Marilyn Monroe’s dress blowing up in The Seven Year Itch” or “Einstein sticking is tongue out,” these phrases must automatically conjure up distinct images in your minds. Alongside you, millions of people think about the exact same images. That is what iconic means. Such pictures are joyful, unexpected or dramatic moments that are part of our culture. They characterize historical events, famous people and define an entire generation. Out of pride, we reproduce them time and time again on postcards, t-shirts, wallpaper: victories like the flag raising at Iwo Jima, or tragedies, such as the Hindenburg disaster.
What makes a photograph iconic?
“I think the most important common denominator is that they strike us on a very deep emotional level, and the emotions are usually some of the deepest emotions that a human being can feel: heroism, fear, grief, joy” said Peter Howe, whose career has included stints as director of photography at Life magazine and picture editor at The New York Times Magazine.[iii] If you take Einstein’s picture to people, from any country, whichever their cultural background, they will respond the same way, given who he was, and the cheerfulness of his pulling faces.
In addition, iconic picture captures an exact instant and can’t possibly be repeated, said John Loengard, a former Life magazine picture editor who has been taking photos professionally for more than 50 years. It is the case for Richard Drew’s photograph of the man falling from the World Trade Center on 9/11, or the burned little girl, running from her village after a napalm bombing in Vietnam. As we look at these pictures, we immediately grasp their significance. These are exact moments; the photographs can’t possibly be repeated.
“Before the Internet and the digital era, media had limited space and were more selective in their choice of pictures. But with much more space online, the standards have lowered”, said Carol Squiers, curator at the International Center of Photography.[iv] Before overabundance, people had more time to absorb an image and think critically about it. Iconic images can help us put historical events into a deeper perspective; they give us insight into a specific time period and allow us to understand what the global feelings were at that time. But the sheer volume of photos available today could drown a potentially iconic photo out.
Everyone would agree that digital networks have lots of advantages. Today, many more people than ever have the opportunity to capture an exact and iconic moment. The time lag between when the photos were taken and their release has been suppressed, and the flux of image is instantaneous. But the inundation of visual imagery of which we are both the perpetrators and the victims, makes it increasingly more difficult for any particular picture to rise to the surface.
“It’s very easy to take a picture; it is not very easy to take a good picture,” Carol Squiers said. “And it is even harder to take a picture that lasts through time.”[v]
[i] Stuart Jeffries “The death of Photography: Are Camera Phones Destroying an Artform”, The Guardian 13 December 2013 http://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/dec/13/death-of-photography-camera-phones (20/05/2014)
[ii] Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (1964, New York: McGraw-Hill)
[iii] Almond, Kyle “What Makes an Image Unforgettable”, CNN, September 4, 2013, CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/01/us/the-flag-iconic-images/ (20/05/2015)
[iv] Almond, Kyle “What Makes an Image Unforgettable”, CNN, September 4, 2013, CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/01/us/the-flag-iconic-images/ (20/05/2015)
[v] Almond, Kyle “What Makes an Image Unforgettable”, CNN, September 4, 2013, CNN http://edition.cnn.com/2013/09/01/us/the-flag-iconic-images/ (10/06/2015)