Photographic icons in the digital age

Scholarly research has clearly established that photographs can invoke a powerful and lasting emotional response. As Mallette wrote in 1976, “The frozen moment … remains. It can haunt. It can hurt and hurt again. It can also leave an indelible message about the betterment of society, the end of war, the elimination of hunger, the alleviation of human misery” (p. 120). And, in fact, it is this “frozen moment” that allows the photograph to become a lasting moment and a photographic “icon:”

A naked Vietnamese girl screaming out in pain following a napalm attack. U.S. soldiers raising the American flag at Iwo Jima. A slain president’s young son saluting his father’s coffin.

Visual scholars (notably Perlmutter; Hariman and Lucaites) have identified key criteria for a photograph to become iconic: acknowledgment by the public, evocation of emotion, replication across media and time, and perhaps most important, representation of a significant historic event.

Iconic photographs become part of our collective consciousness largely due to their prominent placement on the front pages of newspapers from around the world.

Consider the recent winter storm “Nemo” that blasted the Northeast. The day after the storm struck, one key photograph was featured prominently in four leading newspapers. The photo, taken by Brian Snyder of Thomson Reuters, depicted a pedestrian nearly being swept away by powerful winds and snow. See the photo below, courtesy of Poynter, as well as a related article:


Based on the prominent placement on leading newspaper front pages, the photo in question clearly meets one of the criteria for iconicity: replication across media. See below, courtesy of Poynter:


And while it might seem that this photo is on the path to iconic status, it is not likely that the photo will “stand the test of time” and become part of our collective consciousness. The primary reason is that while winter storm Nemo was a significant weather event, its magnitude did not equal that of Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti earthquake, for example.

But there is another key reason: the rapidly-changing nature of print journalism and the shift to digital-first publication.

Carolyn Kitch suggests that print news has an afterlife that we collect on event anniversaries or special events for commemoration, remembering and historic record. But what happens when that “frozen moment” moves from a static, front-page photo to a dynamic, multi-media web presentation? The Golden Age of photojournalism is drawing to a close as we usher in the new digital era. What does this mean for the future of photojournalism? What do we lose? What do we gain? What does this mean for the formation of a collective visual consciousness? And is it possible to have photographic icons in the digital age?

These are some of the leading questions facing visual scholars today.


One response to “Photographic icons in the digital age

  1. Pingback: Photographic icons in the Kennedy assassination | Nicole Dahmen·

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