The vanity of the iconic

In an ever-chang­ing, web-driven world, is there still any mean­ing in striv­ing to make a pho­to­graph iconic?

Among the many thoughts I have in my moments of leisure is a recur­ring one about pho­tog­ra­phy: when was the last time we had a pho­to­graph as revered as The Tetons and snake river, or the cyclist of Hyères, or Lanesville or Reflec­tions, or col­lec­tions with an impal­pa­ble draw like The Amer­i­cans or Chromes or Uncom­mon places? What pho­to­graph was made in the last decade that was not reportage and was well and truly a work of fine art, driven by the photographer’s vision alone?

An iconic work is one that is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of every­thing it stands for, a family of tech­niques or beliefs or approaches. It is undoubt­edly hard to be iconic, but have we sealed that pos­si­bil­ity entirely? Two argu­ments can be made to account for our cur­rent sit­u­a­tion. On the one had we could declare that we have indeed not seen any works of com­pa­ra­ble merit at all. On the other we could argue that there are far too many and we no longer stand by a scale with which to rank them.

As hard as it may be to pick the defin­i­tive one, the former is the more opti­mistic pos­si­bil­ity. On the inter­net, mar­ket­ing is vital to get­ting noticed. Good work will find its rewards but rarely as fast as bad work cou­pled with great skills in mar­ket­ing. For some reason great artists who are equally great mar­keters are hard to come by, per­haps because there is too little time on our hands to real­is­ti­cally be able to master both these skills. The sad part of this, if it is true, is that we are let­ting some really great work slip through our fin­gers.

The other option demands that we con­sider the times in which these pho­tographs were made. Today, every­body with a camera-phone is a self-pro­claimed pho­tog­ra­pher, and there are hun­dreds of thou­sands of pho­tographs being shared on the Web every single minute. With so many pho­tographs around us, can we even real­is­ti­cally hope to remem­ber a pho­to­graph and recall its name (if it has one) enough to make it iconic? What is an icon if it is not even recog­nised?

It would be easy to mis­take all of this for fame, but that is not my point of con­cern here. The inten­tion now is to see if any pho­to­graph has seeped into our mind deep enough that we can even recall it, let alone describe it and poet­i­cise it. Do you, for instance, recall all the pho­tographs you saw when you vis­ited your social net­work of choice yes­ter­day?

This is, arguably, a bigger reason why we have not defin­i­tively ranked any recent pho­tographs among Ansel Adams’s or Cartier-Bresson’s or Brassai’s or Robert Frank’s or Eggleston’s works. So many of us are voic­ing our opin­ions that we cannot bring our­selves to agree upon some­thing. That art is so per­sonal and sub­jec­tive has not helped any. And so many of us are shar­ing so many of our pho­tographs today (to say noth­ing of how many of these can even be cat­e­gorised as inten­tional, artis­tic work) that we do not have time to soak in one to our sat­is­fac­tion before another is thrust upon us.

Pho­tog­ra­phy has become almost as widely prac­ticed an amuse­ment as sex and danc­ing … [It is] a social rite, a defence against anx­i­ety, and a tool of power. 

 — Susan Sontag 

All of this is not to make the inter­net a vil­lain. The onus is on those of us who use it as a tool to use it better. More­over, this is not all pho­tog­ra­phy has to con­tend with today. The inter­net has enabled the masses and nor­malised pho­tog­ra­phy to such an extent that com­par­ing it to its niche status in the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies seems unfair. Added to this are var­i­ous other media, from cin­e­mas to three-dimen­sional videos to vir­tual and aug­mented real­i­ties, and pho­tog­ra­phy (which deals with the sense of sight alone, restricted to two dimen­sions) is com­pet­ing with forms that directly com­mu­ni­cate to mul­ti­ple senses in our body and in three dimen­sions too.

During the times of pio­neers, and for decades later too, until cam­eras started cost­ing sums we would never think twice about spend­ing, people had not only seen much less of the world but also never saw pho­tog­ra­phy as a tool. It belonged, like the paint­brush, in the hands of artists. Writ­ing was a tool, per­haps the pre­ferred tool with which to keep mem­o­ries. And then pho­tog­ra­phy came into everyone’s hands and under­stand­ably became the pre­ferred medium. With that, exactly what was artis­tic about pho­tog­ra­phy was lost on most people.

This is not a phe­nom­e­non rooted in this cen­tury. Susan Sontag made star­tlingly sim­i­lar obser­va­tions as early as the sev­en­ties: Recently, pho­tog­ra­phy has become almost as widely prac­ticed an amuse­ment as sex and danc­ing – which means that, like every mass art form, pho­tog­ra­phy is not prac­ticed by most people as art. It is mainly a social rite, a defence against anx­i­ety, and a tool of power’. The less likely we are to recog­nise art, the less likely it is for there to be an icon.

All of this brings me to my fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: what is the point? Why strive to be iconic? What good does want­ing to make an iconic pho­to­graph do? Making an iconic pho­to­graph should not be anybody’s aim. Pho­tog­ra­phy has entered into our lives beyond such a depth that we no longer take notice of it. It must make its pres­ence felt, but cannot hope to do so visu­ally. A car in Karl Benz’s or Henry Ford’s time would make people freeze in their tracks and take notice. Today, such a car is rare. Cars, like pho­tographs, have become a part of our lives that we almost take for granted.

So many of us are shar­ing so many of our pho­tographs today that we do not have time to soak in one to our sat­is­fac­tion before another is thrust upon us. 

As the Everyman’s snap­shot’ is raised to the level of art by the sheer force of an unin­formed crowd’s opin­ion, one may find them­selves won­der­ing what art is in the first place. This ques­tion is as old as art itself and hardly worth wor­ry­ing about. How­ever there is an ill effect of this: the time it takes to jour­ney, imag­ine, and make an inten­tional pho­to­graph (as opposed to an oppor­tunis­tic snap­shot’) and the tech­nique, dis­ci­pline, plan­ning, and effort that goes into making such a beau­ti­ful, artis­tic pic­ture is never thought about, let alone respected. It becomes no dif­fer­ent from any other sorry excuse for a pho­to­graph: it becomes another thing to swipe or scroll past on our high-res­o­lu­tion screens.

Tech­nol­ogy has made people nou­veau riche in terms of what can be done in the (dig­i­tal) dark­room regard­less of whether it needs to be done or not. You can micro­man­age a pho­to­graph with great ease, zoom into obliv­ion and set every pixel right and, per­haps even unin­ten­tion­ally, pay dis­pro­por­tion­ately less atten­tion to the pho­to­graph as a whole. As we con­tinue look into a pho­to­graph rather than at it, we habit­u­ally miss the forest for the trees. My ref­er­ence to the nou­veau riche should not be mis­taken as a wealth divide; it is better under­stood in terms of the luck­ier cousin of pho­tog­ra­phy who has not befallen this misery: making people nou­veau riche is like hand­ing every­one an unlim­ited supply of canvas and paint­brushes and pas­tels. But not every­one will make art and not every­one wants to.

The art in a paint­ing is more obvi­ous than the art in a pho­to­graph, in part because most believe a making a paint­ing takes sev­eral care­ful brush­strokes while making a pho­to­graph takes a click that lasts less than a frac­tion of a second: few think of the mental and phys­i­cal effort a pho­to­graph demands before and after depress­ing the shut­ter. A pho­to­graph is much easier to cap­ture’ in that, unlike a paint­ing, every­one stand­ing at a par­tic­u­lar spot, pho­tograph­ing a moun­tain will end up with more or less the same pho­to­graph. A good pho­to­graph, though is harder to make. And soci­ety will not recog­nise a good pho­to­graph so long as they look at the sub­ject of the pho­to­graph alone and not the pho­to­graph as a whole. The pic­ture of a cabin in the woods holds only so much excite­ment until you have seen sev­eral pic­tures of cabins in woods. But what if the cabin was only a frac­tion of the pic­ture? Indeed it often is noth­ing more. If we start look­ing at the way light falls on it, the way it has been com­posed, the geom­e­try and tex­ture in the pho­to­graph, the way the artist played with the space in his frame, the sym­phony of colour, and the var­i­ous other ele­ments that play together to make the whole pic­ture, then any number of pho­tographs of cabins in woods will all look dif­fer­ent.

Pho­tographs cap­ture time, not space. And they are about emo­tions, not objects alone.

In a crowd of pic­tures, a pho­to­graph loses indi­vid­u­al­ity not because it is not spe­cial but because our senses have dulled to the point where we no longer recog­nise and appre­ci­ate the merits of a good pho­to­graph. One can then not hope to make a pic­ture of a pigeon and awe people; they will have to look for a dodo. One cannot make pic­tures of the ordi­nary so long as people mis­take the sub­ject of a pho­to­graph as the pho­to­graph itself rather than appre­ci­ate other artis­tic ele­ments the pho­tog­ra­pher worked hard to paint in with light. And so long as the worth of a pho­to­graph is judged by what is in it rather than what all har­monise to make it up, the bar for an iconic’ pho­to­graph will remain so unre­al­is­ti­cally high that we will lose sight of it. We prob­a­bly already have.

A pho­to­graph must, instead, arouse emo­tion­ally any viewer who lets it. (Those who make them­selves immune to it cannot be helped.) The aim of making a pho­to­graph must then be not to make it an icon but to make it evoke cer­tain emo­tions in its view­ers. But will it stay with them and will they remem­ber it a week or a year from now? It is hard to say: if we took in pho­tographs as thought­fully and as slowly and as mea­suredly as a glass of cen­tury-old wine, they cer­tainly will. As long as we gulp it like a bottle of water, it will be just that: another glass of water we have grown accus­tomed to drink­ing and pay little atten­tion to. It does not enrich your table at dinner, it just exists.

To break out of this mould then, is more in the viewer’s hands than in a photographer’s. But con­trol­ling emo­tions is still some­thing the pho­tog­ra­pher can do. We should come to terms with the simple fact that being iconic has lost its mean­ing, for better or worse. Being a good pho­to­graph has not. And so long as we look past the blades of grass and instead try to cap­ture the breeze sway­ing them using our lenses, pho­tog­ra­phy will remain an art form. A single pho­to­graph may rarely stand out high or long enough any­more to be remem­bered by every­one for the next few gen­er­a­tions, but the art of pho­tog­ra­phy always will.




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