Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Death of the Iconic Photo

I dunno about you, but I think of contemporary photographers and photographers from, say, more than 40 years ago quite differently. Robinson, Stieglitz, Weston, Lange, Adams, Evans, Evans, I can think instantly of one of two iconic photographs. Bam. These people exist in my mind, first and foremost, as iconic pictures.

SebastiĆ£o Salgado, Peter Turnley, Sally Mann? These guys do not.

These guys exist as bodies of work, sets of ideas. I can, with effort, think up single pictures from them, but there's no instant recall of these things. I instantly think of ideas and books and collections.

I think, although I am not sure, that this is a reflection of the modern trends in photography.

There's no such thing as a singular iconic image any more. There's an idea, a concept, and then a cloud of pictures around it. Pick any Salgado picture. It's probably crunchy black and white, of some subject or another. A desolate landscape, a desperate human, perhaps. I can find 100,000 similar photos online in a few minutes. Some of them will be excellent. Some of them might be better than Salgado's picture.

Does this mean that Salgado sucks? Certainly not.

His strength is in the ideas and in the bodies of work. Any fool can make a crunchy black and white photo of a poor South American child, and 10s of 1000s of fools have. 1000s of them have probably made excellent crunchy black and white photographs of a poor South American child. But only one has made important books, embodying important ideas, that contain such pictures. Ok, maybe two or three people have. But not very many.

Edward Weston's place in the history of photography rests, at least in part, on a handful of truly excellent photographs. Sally Mann's place rests on a handful of books. The pictures themselves are, of course, excellent. But the point is that they fit into carefully built collections, portfolios of work that embody something bigger.

It's not that excellent pictures are no longer being made, it's that they're being made in such quantity that the quality "iconic" is no longer applicable to a single photograph. Instead, we have an archetype and a collection of instances of it. These things, in and of themselves, have become less and less interesting.

In a way, I think we've grown up. Individual words were cool when they'd just been invented, but now everyone can read and write. What's interesting now is the sentences and poems and books and plays that a few of the most talented are writing.

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