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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