Marilyn Monroe's dress billowing on the subway grate, man vs. tanks in Tiananmen Square and Jane Rose Kasmir planting a flower in a bayonet; each of these conjure a distinct image in our minds. It's unlikely that you witnessed any of these events first hand and yet you are able to visualise each so perfectly in your mind.
An iconic photograph can sum up a mood or a moment in time. It can be the defining image of a celebrity, a sporting event or define a cultural moment and speak for a generation. It can become the image that represents it's subject and will live on into the future.
We see these images reproduced on t-shirts, posters and even as memes. So what is it that makes them so special? Often they succeed by defining a subject, event or person in a way that has up until then been unachieved. One of the most important factors in an image becoming iconic is that on some level it strikes an emotional connection with the viewer.
A great example of an iconic image is the amazing photograph of Usain Bolt taken by Getty Images' Cameron Spencer at the Rio Olympics. When we think of Bolt, his 'lightning bolt' pose, struck in post victory celebrations, is usually the first image that comes to mind. However, the latest image of Bolt looking sideways across his competitors as he crosses the finish line in the 100m semi-final will, I believe, become another such iconic image of the athlete. We have already seen it become an internet sensation, with hundreds of memes created almost instantly after the picture went live.
The reason this image has become iconic is because it beautifully captures the playful positivity that Bolt brings to the sport. We want Bolt to win. He entertains us and he always delivers on our expectation of him as a winner - and a charismatic personality.
Cameron Spencer, the photographer who captured this moment, reiterates this sentiment of Bolt playing to the camera commenting that, "Bolt is an entertainer and he surprises me every time he goes on the track. I've been shooting him for three Olympics and two World Championships and each time he simply loves entertaining the crowd. When shooting the world's fastest man you always need to be on your toes and ready. When he flew past me with perfect technique and his huge stride, he looked back and smiled...he makes it look easy."
Iconic imagery is not only created by the incredible skill, creativity and foresight from the photographer, but it is also driven by a need we have for a visual statement that encapsulate how we feel about the subject. Both have to match.
Another important aspect of this image of Bolt, and other iconic images, is that the visual exists solely in that moment. The image, the subject and the action cannot be recreated or staged. That is what makes it so special, it provides the viewer with a permanent window into the event and that moment is preserved forever. As the photographer's shutter closes, history is captured and an icon is created.
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