Let me begin by acknowledging that the words icon and image are synonyms. Icon is a word current in Hellenic and Classical Greek, very old and means image. So the religious iconoclasts in various eras were in the habit of destroying statues and murals depicting scenes from the Bible. To the enemies of images, icons were “graven images” and against God’s law. In Eastern Christianity, on the other hand, icons are essential in the churches and their worship as windows into a spiritual reality. That’s the historical sense of icon.
In our times, icon and its adjectival form, iconic tend to mean something both more and less. We refer to “icons of Hollywood” or political icons, generally referring to individuals who stand out in celebrity and recognizability. My use here will fall somewhere between these two distinct uses of the term and thus I add image to the title.
Let me start with a truly iconic image, from Dorothea Lange, that we know as “Migrant Mother”.
Dorothea made this image in 1936 while working for a Federal agency. In the well known story she saw this family and drove by, then thought better of it and returned doing a series of 4X5 photos with her RB Graflex Model D. This is an iconic photograph in that it is so recognizable by so many people over multiple generations. That is iconic in a modern sense of the word. Let me add another photo.
This is a photo by Colin Mulvany of the Spokesman Review taken at the beginning of June, 2020. Colin uses Nikon Digital equipment. My initial viewing of this photo in the newspaper is the catalyst for the present meditation.
Long before Dorothea Lange, and reverting to the ancient version of Icon, there were in churches across Eurasia and later the Americas, images of the Madonna and Child, thousands upon thousands of such images. They were paintings, murals, frescoes and done by artists over many generations. Mother and child. The child was, to be sure, Jesus, who Martin Luther referred to as a baby, wrapped in rags and laying in a feeding trough. Often in the mother and child images the baby was freed from the dirty beginnings and swaddles in elegant cloth and gold. Still, the Christmas stories every year reminded the faithful (or not) of his humble beginnings. The Mother and Child image was and is a true Icon in the original sense and continues to be used as such.
When a photographer goes out to photograph he or she purposefully takes up the task of “seeing”. We all see only partly through the visual receptors of our eyes. We also see, and for me this is a significant, also through the lenses of our cultural and social experience. About 20 years ago my wife and I went on a photo exploration with a friend and ended up in a small Eastern Washington town once given over wholly to agriculture and now living in the shadows of its historical past, old farm implements and work trucks remaining like ghosts of the past. The three of us eventually ended up in an alley looking at remnants of faded and peeling paint on old windows and glass and iron bars robed in the patina of the generations gone. Why did the three of us. each one individually, all gravitate to this alley? To say that such places look good in black and white only partially explains it. We had seen the images of other photographers, in books and magazines where such things displayed themselves well. Part of the wisdom one gains in studying other photographers work is to recognize what does work well. Such image truths plant themselves as templates of sort in our minds and so a walk through the alley becomes a walk through a memory of sorts as the template guides our seeing. For a lot of photographers the body of Ansel Adams’ work serves as a restriction in the way they can visualize the landscape even as it serves to illuminate. The template is a double edged sword.
I started wondering about Dorothea Lange stopping at the pea pickers camp in 1936. She is drawn to the visually observable poverty of this family and she is very sympathetic, emotionally moved. But she is also a pro, grabs her big Graflex and approaches, makes her first shot from the distance as the woman and children eye her warily. Her final shot is the best. When she is framing it, looking down at the glass, and here my meditation takes over, a template helps her frame, the Mother and Child, whether she recognizes that or not, and with a final big Kachunk, the focal plane shutter snaps down.
Now obviously this is a mother with her children, so the connection is easy to make. Rather than take that easy route I want to think about the Mother and Child in a more neutral sense, in a more strictly visual, mechanical sense, so that image means less about a human arrangement and more about a visual arrangement, of lights and darks and composition. There is the rectangle, vertical in format, which acts as a frame around the figures, which makes the figures central, the point of focus. Portraits are so often in vertical format that we now use the word to describe it, the portrait mode. In the Mother and Child template the Mother, the caregiver is higher up than the one who is cared for. While often in portrait work the subjects eyes look back at the viewer, but not so much in Mother and Child.
Lange’s Mother looks away, past the photographer, viewer, camera. We know now that she was at least partly Native American, know something of her story, can find photos of her as an old grandmother with her grown children. But is any of that relevant to Lange’s photograph, which has now become an icon?
Colin Mulvany’s photograph was taken at a street demonstration after the death of George Floyd. That makes it newsworthy. The two figures in the image were tear-gassed by the police. They are not mother and child, but cousins, a younger and an older. Still, I wonder, whether or not the photographer in his approach to the subjects was not working with templates and influences and cultural and social history both personal and community shared? How could he not? He could have turned the Nikon to horizontal mode and captured demonstrators and policeman and location for context. Instead he creates a portrait, poignant, telling, universal. Does it matter that this was a demonstration instigated by the killing of Floyd, or promoted by Black Lives Matter? Does it matter that this is Spokane and not Paducah? It certainly does to his newspaper, which is why newspapers and magazines add captions. It does not matter to the photograph, the image itself, the icon that conveys more than the particulars even as it conveys less of them. The best photographers can instill in their fraction of a second image so much more than the moment, and can do so, I suspect, because they can intuitively incorporate the icons of our shared cultural and social history.
June 6, 2020