12 Weeks of Christmas: the Most Iconic Photo of All Time

12 Weeks of Christmas: the Most Iconic Photo of All Time

It's Christmas week and the 12 weeks of Christmas reaches its last installment. There had to be a number 1 and what better choice than the most iconic photo of all time?

Iconography — the study of images — is the foundation of photography. Images are there to be seen, creating a visual stimulus and subsequent emotional reaction in the viewer. The visual literacy of the viewer and complexity of the message intersect to create a cognitive response. Of course there of plenty of images that will never get viewed — the photographic equivalent of

If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?

For example, there is a plethora of CCTV footage that continually records and erases, never once allowing a backlit display to burn their pixels on to the back of someone's retina. However, we are in search of an iconic image, one that is remarkable in the way it can create and amplify an emotional response, that propagates into conveying a message. More than that, it needs to convey this across societies and cultures and — indeed — time. An image so remarkable that, by definition, it is "worthy of veneration."

Given 2018 saw over 1.2 trillion images captured and likely over 10 trillion since the first daguerrotype back in the 1830s, this is no small order. I'd like to think that there are four broad categories of photos. Firstly, those that are "incidental" to the process of image capture. That is, they are the result of a wider goal and the photo simply represents one small component. CCTV is a good example where security monitoring occurs as a deterrent and there is no prima facie use for the images.

Then there are those photos that are taken with "intent." The photo is the purpose and the intention is that they will be looked at, as a result there is some requirement in the effort expended. The second and third are therefore bad and good photos. We all shoot plenty of the former and attain, to some degree, the latter. The final category are the so-called great — or iconic — photos that transcend anything else in their wake and take on a meaning and narrative in their own right. They meet the criteria for a good photo, but a combination of subject, technique, and moment combine to produce something that is communicative, meditative, resonating with contemporary and future audiences. They are photos that will stop you in your tracks.

With this in mind, I see iconography operating on two levels. Firstly, there are intrinsically iconic photos. Those that are technically remarkable (such as Stephen Wilkes Day to Night photos) or creatively stunning (such as Cartier-Bressons's Behind the Gare Saint-Lazare). In these instances, the photos stand out because they are different. For them to become iconic they need to remain stunning, something that is difficult to achieve.

Secondly, there are iconic points in history about which society can pivot, that end up defining the future of entire peoples, countries, or continents. Moments so influential that they take on an historical significance that is redefining. Think about the World Trade Centre, D-Day Landings, or fall of the Berlin Wall.

Whilst the first requires you to be a good photographer, something you can practice and grow in to, the latter is obviously a little more hit-and-miss. Some things you know will be significant, but not necessarily their magnitude. The ongoing protests in Hong Kong are of unknown importance — will the imagery simply form an archive of anti-government protests? Robert Capa knew the D-Day Landings were important, although it was only subsequently that they took on such pivotal significance.

However there are other events which are spontaneously hyper-critical — such as the World Trade Center attacks — and the photographer needs to be lucky enough to simply be there.

Interestingly, there are some events which are iconic for which no iconic imagery exists. In these instances there is the possibility that you might get transplanted images, such as David Cairns' emotive photos of Father Alex Reid giving the last rights to two British soldiers during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. Arguably the pivot point was Bloody Sunday and whilst plenty of imagery exists, they perhaps aren't as iconic.

There are other images which are worth honorable mentions... Dali Atomicus by Philippe Halsman is an insane levitating composition that involved three flying cats! Memorable, creative, and boundary pushing, it is creatively iconic. Another well known photograph is V-J Day in Times Square by Alfred Eisenstadt: whilst the celebrations were manifest the moment is more reflective of a mood and has subsequently been reinterpreted with changing social mores. A final mention must go to Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange which has almost passed beyond iconic. Whilst symbolic of the Great Depression it is also an example of how an image (and as a result the subject) can be exploited to help a humanitarian cause. This may potentially be at the expense of the individual, a recurrent theme for news photographers.

With the above in mind, I've shortlisted 7 photos which meet my subjective criteria for the most iconic image of all time. In no particular order, these are:

1. Tank Man (1989)

Jeff Widener was one of a number of journalists holed up in Western hotels in Beijing covering the anti-government protests. Taking the photograph and smuggling the film out was risky and whilst the photo itself isn't technically challenging, what it portrays — protest, courage, sacrifice — is remarkable.

2. D-Day (1944)

War photographers are notable for their courage and sadly there are many who have died whilst working, including Robert Capa who accompanied the troop landings in Normandy during D-Day. The best way to read about the assignment and how the grainy images were produced is through reading Magnum's Contact Sheets. The photos evoke the terror of a beach landing under enemy fire, but also our understanding of the importance of D-Day — and the number of men who died — adds gravitas.

3. Falling Man (2001)

The image is shocking to view without any understanding of the context. The only situation in which this can happen is base jumping and it's clearly not that. If there is a single image which portrays the emotional terror and one response to it, then this is it. The terrorist attack on the Twin Towers was a pivot point globally and the world has subsequently changed.

4. The Terror of War (1972)

Nick Ut's photo strikes at the heart of the terror, futility, and casualties of war by presenting how it impacts upon the most vulnerable in society — children. War kills and has traumatic psychological impacts for the many affected by it, however for children it can be totally devastating. This image yanks hard at our emotional anxieties.

5. Saigon Execution (1968)

This is perhaps the most shocking of all the images here. Whilst implied death (such as with Falling Man) is powerful, the violent death of another human shocks to the core. The photo — again published in Magnum Contact Sheets — is actually one of a sequence from Eddie Adams and they are worth viewing in context and then reading the backstory. It is also a salutary reminder than ordinary people can do extraordinary acts.

6.The Last Rites (1988)

Seeing a person's implied death or the moment of death, are quite different — but as equally disturbing — as seeing a lifeless body. This photograph by David Cairns is of Father Alec Reid in the aftermath of the murders of two off-duty British Army soldiers. The image is littered with the evidence of a violent, brutal, struggle, the final act being the Last Rites. Whilst it can be viewed as a reflection of The Troubles in Northern Ireland, the more back story you read the more narrative is overlain on to it. It is a complex world and this image surprises in the way it can convey a simple message, yet offer surprisingly deep insights.

The Most Iconic Image: Earth Rise (1968)

William Anders flew on Apollo 8 and, with Jim Lovell and Frank Borman, were the first people to leave low Earth orbit and travel to the Moon. No one had seen the dark side of the Moon so it was with some excitement that, as they re-emerged still looking toward the satellite, an astonished Anders exclaimed:.

Oh my God! Look at that picture over there! There's the Earth coming up. Wow, that's pretty.

There, our own planet — a blue marble floating in space — sat beautifully pristine (see all the photos from Magazine 14BB). The Earth, a miraculous ball that sustains life, was ready for a center-stage image that had never been seen before. Even today, without the context of history, it is a breathtaking sight and one that recently celebrated it's fiftieth anniversary. Taken with a highly modified Hasselblad 500EL, Anders shot with a Zeiss 250mm Sonnar f/5.6 lens using 70mm Kodak Ektachrome film.


It is perhaps depressingly familiar that war dominates when it comes to images that are iconic, yet Earth Rise wins not only because of the technical achievements to acquire the photo, the beautiful composition, or the singular moment in history, but also because it is an image of hope. One Earth, our planet, our future. However it's not just what I think. Vote now for the most iconic image from those presented above or list your own choice.

Lead image a composite courtesy of Xavier Romero-Frias via Wikipedia, used under Creative Commons. Body images (Migrant Mother and Earth Rise) in the Public Domain.

Mike Smith's picture

Mike Smith is a professional wedding and portrait photographer and writer based in London, UK.

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The burning monk, 1963

Interesting how they’re all basically photo journalism.

Does it mean that with time historical significance outweighs every other aspect of a good photograph?

I'm not sure. But, maybe. It's certainly a major influence.

It would be interesting to see if there are any photos produced for iconic moments in history..... Any thoughts?

Did you notice that only Earth Rise is not about death and war? And that is the one most people chose? Humanity is tired of the death cult society. We need hope/