The definition of an iconic image is somewhat difficult to ascertain. The power of an icon is possibly one that is visually arresting. In the last century, the power of still photography was utilized to display the triumph, horror, joy, and determination of the human spirit. One can see that images that display a crowd can either elicit fear or somber gratitude depending on the speaker in the picture. Another instance is how a person’s portrait can be used to elicit respect, sympathy, or abject dislike. What must be certain is how an image’s social impact is relative to cultural context.
The first image that can be easily viewed as an icon is Joe Rosenthal’s photograph of the flag raisers on Iwo Jima. When the picture is viewed, one can see six young marines, their faces shadowed by the rising sun and clearly struggling to raise the American flag. To many, this image represents the culmination of fours years of grief, anger, and pride in the collective action of the American people. It is also seemingly an image of closure and vindication as the U.S. entered the war with the tragedy that was Pearl Harbor.
The second image has a substantial amount of infamy as the turning point of America’s involvement in Vietnam. This image is of South Vietnamese General Nguyen Ngoc Loan publicly executing a Viet Cong officer in the streets of Saigon. Photographed by Associated Press photographer Eddie Adams, the image is crucial as it first signified to the American public of the conflict’s ferocity and impersonal nature. General Nguyen displays himself as impassive and sociopathic, whereas the insurgent visibly has an expression of sheer terror. This image clearly signifies the savagery of war as a brutal, personal action instead of an abstract.
The final image is of Martin Luther King Jr. during his famous “I have a Dream” speech. The viewer can see Dr. King standing well above the crowd, numbering in the tens of thousands. His expression is of hope and contentment. What can be conveyed is the optimism of this scene. As a student of theology, he very well knew that his taking position above the masses is evocative of Moses and the Hebrews. The image is nothing short of amity and brotherhood.
Each of these images are unique in the sense that they are visually arresting, elicit emotions and are subject to interpretation. They are all visual representations of their period in history and evocative of the time’s sentiment. Most importantly an icon has the power to connect the viewer to the event.