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But what makes an image iconic? What does it mean to be an icon? How does a photo earn the status? We asked Evie Salmon, a writer, artist and cultural critic, to give us her take.

By making an image to be observed, framed and exhibited in such a way that it outlasts both the subject and the producer, we find ourselves with the ability to construct objects of worship. It could then be said that photography doesn't merely record iconicity but also generates it.

‘Icon’ means ‘image’. The word also refers to a particular kind of image that resembles rather than symbolises an object. A photograph is iconic because when we look through old albums, we see the faces of our loved ones, the bad weather on the beach, the terrible haircuts. A text is symbolic because when we dig out the old postcards, we read a name, we don’t see a face. The jumbled up collection of letters tells us about the day at the seaside and it’s up to our minds to somehow fill in the rest. Writing presents a series of images that we have to decode; photography, painting and film convey images that apparently communicate a direct impression of the objects they record.

‘Icon’ also carries a third, cultural implication. It describes an image, person, action or object that carries an obvious meaning, while at the same time hinting at another idea which is less obvious, but possibly more significant. This is the territory of the religious icon: a painting that depicts a spiritual image, figure or scene. In part, it ‘stands in’ for that figure but at the same time, it’s used as an aid to worship. It allows the user to access the divine. An icon is then two things at once; it is simultaneously an image and an idea, it is both a sign and a symbol.

Iconic celebrity of the 1960s

Twentieth century photographic portraiture, particularly the work of Brian Duffy and Terence Donovan, clearly shows the strange power of the iconic image. Along with David Bailey, Duffy and Donovan were at the centre of the 1960s explosion in celebrity photography that connected directly to the emergence of London as a ‘Swinging’ city in 1966. Their crisp monochromatic images demonstrate photography’s rapid development away from the murk of nineteenth century sepia. The content of some of their most famous images also shows photography’s potential as an art form as well as its efficacy as a mode of recording.

Take, for example, Donovan’s ‘Union Jack’ photograph of Twiggy, from 1966. The basic concept is simple. A strikingly beautiful woman models clothing in front of the British flag. It is essentially a variant on the theme of ‘national dress’, but in this instance rather than merely presenting an item associated with Britain, the photograph confronts the viewer with it. By 1966, Great Britain may not have had the imperial power of Pax Britannica but the image is suggestive of a continuing claim to cultural dominance. Positioning ‘the face of 1966’ with the specificity of a national flag, associates Britain alone with high fashion, cutting edge design and a raw sexuality. The result is a re-imagining of Britishness that swerves away from conservatism and austerity towards social liberation and creative potency.

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Icon in advertising

Donovan’s photographs of Joan Collins and Sean Connery, take this double suggestion further. Shot for advertising campaigns in 1966 and 1962, Collins promotes Vidal Sassoon whilst Connery is associated with Smirnoff Vodka. Both are excellent compositions in which the face takes priority to the extent that the product in question is almost obscured. As with the Twiggy photograph they are each conceptually simple: a woman looks at the camera, a man takes a drink. But of course, there is little that is anonymous about these apparently natural life studies. It is specifically Joan Collins who looks and Sean Connery who drinks.

Because these people are so familiar to us, because they are the people we want to be, their photographs cease to act as pictures to be observed. Instead they invite the viewer into a series of suggestions. Go to Vidal Sassoon and the glamorous life of the film star can be yours; drink Smirnoff vodka and you can talk, fight and have sex just like James Bond.

The French linguist, Roland Barthes would call this suggestive quality the operation of a ‘mythology’: the ability of a sign or symbol to communicate ‘what-goes-without-saying’. Brian Duffy’s photographs of Michael Caine, taken for the Sunday Times in 1965, carry this element of the iconic with its loudly spoken silence. One shot views him in close-up and in profile, framed by a white void. Caine looks at someone off camera and seems about to speak. Here is the acclaimed young actor, but here also is a speaker, a thinker; someone cerebral, a spokesperson. Caine is not being used to sell a specific product (except, of course, his latest film), but he’s more than an actor: you should listen to what he has to say.

 

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  • 79855638. British model Twiggy posing in front of Union Jack flag, 1966. (Photo by Terence Donovan Archive/Getty Images)
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  • 79855247. British actress and author Joan Collins, with a haircut by Vidal Sassoon, London, 10th August 1966. (Photo by Terence Donovan Archive/Getty Images)
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  • 79891370. Scottish actor Sean Connery drinking from a glass during a photoshoot for Smirnoff Vodka, 1st January 1962. (Photo by Terence Donovan Archive/Getty Images)
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  • 89170439. English actor Michael Caine, circa 1965. A photoshoot for the 'Sunday Times'. (Photo by Duffy/Getty Images)
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  • 96824008. Singer, songwriter and guitarist John Lennon (1940 - 1980) of English pop group The Beatles, 1965. (Photo by Duffy/Getty Images)
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What constitutes an iconic photograph?

The question that arises at this point, relates to the motivations underpinning the creation of the photograph. The development of photographic technology coincided with the desire of the Victorians to preserve and record their self-evident ‘greatness’. The material benefits of photography offered a means of recording images of the great and the good for posterity. In part, this intention continues with celebrity photography. The subjects are photographed because they are icons within their particular field. Amongst many others, Duffy also photographed John Lennon in 1965 and Harold Wilson in 1966. Both had assumed significant social and cultural status before appearing in front of the lens and it was that prestige which warranted the production of the photograph. When considering Duffy and Donovan’s portrait work, we are presented with a collection of iconic images. That is to say the photographs present the faces of those who are in some way representatives of their particular zeitgeist.

What then constitutes an iconic photograph? To use such a phrase requires the work to be positioned at a borderline between form and content. Photography is a process freely and easily available to all. It’s cheap, fast and flexible. As a method of recording, the continued appeal of a photographic image seems to depend upon the stature of the documented subject. However, the process carries with it a magical element of its own. By making an image to be observed, framed and exhibited in such a way that it outlasts both the subject and the producer, we find ourselves with the ability to construct objects of worship. It could then be said that photography doesn’t merely record iconicity but also generates it. In 1839 the mathematician and astronomer Sir John Herschell studied the chemistry of photography in order to develop an efficient method of recording the stars. The explosion of celebrity photography in the twentieth century suggests that the likes of Duffy and Donovan had worked out how to create the stars themselves.

Evie Salmon

Evie is a lecturer and fellow at the University of Cambridge, and was a Creative in Residence at Idea Generation Gallery in London.

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