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How to create an iconic image
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Alaa Salah image (Credit: Lana H Haroun)
As a photograph of a Sudanese protestor went viral, Sophia Smith Galer discovers the age-old elements that give certain images mass appeal.
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What do you think of when you hear the word ‘icon’? Liz Hurley in that Versace dress? David Bowie? Or perhaps a 12th Century devotional image of a crucified Christ?

The truth is, all three of those examples – a famous photograph, a world-renowned musical artist and a piece of religious art – are icons. But the latter is the original; drawn from the Greek word eikōn, meaning ‘image’ or ‘likeness’, these were portrait-style images of important figures like Christ or the Virgin Mary that first appeared in the early centuries of Christianity. Painted in an age when people were picture-poor, they weren’t just pretty things to look at. These were didactic, powerful images that compelled you to pray and obey. Every possible feature – the use of colour, what the subject was holding, their posture – was of a semiotic importance that can be lost on us today in an age of mass media. 

Religious icons drew their name from the Greek eikōn meaning ‘image’ or ‘likeness’ (Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

Religious icons drew their name from the Greek eikōn meaning ‘image’ or ‘likeness’ (Credit: Noah Seelam/AFP/Getty Images)

But then an image like that of Alaa Salah, protesting in Sudan, captures the global imagination. Within a week of its publication, the image had already typified the entire Sudanese revolution and was being spray-painted on walls across the Arab world. Pull the image apart, and the iconographic details of age-old art are as present in this piece of smartphone photojournalism as they were centuries ago. How do you go about creating such an iconic image?

Break the mould

What is it about Alaa Salah and this photograph that has made it so powerful? For Dr Julia Tatiana Bailey, Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at National Gallery, Prague, it is reminiscent of Jonathan Bachman’s photograph of Ieshia Evans at the Black Lives Matter protests in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. “I think in our image-overloaded world we’re struck by their authenticity, that they are spontaneous images that even so subscribe to visual themes we’re now so used to seeing staged.”

Dr Tina Rivers Ryan, an art historian and curator at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, New York, finds that the power lies in Salah’s posture. “The upward thrust suggests a funnelling of energy to a single, concentrated point – an apt symbol for a revolution gaining focus and momentum, with Salah as its metaphorical (and here, literal) centre.” It reminds Ryan of the archetypal images of an orator from the classics with an open mouth and pointed finger, “while the hand on her stomach functions to ground her rhetoric as something heartfelt, or ‘coming from the gut.’”

Within a week of the photograph going viral, images of Alaa Salah sprung up on billboards and in murals (Credit: Getty)

Within a week of the photograph going viral, images of Alaa Salah sprung up on billboards and in murals (Credit: Getty)

To a Western audience, it also possibly plays into – and against – stereotypes held about the status of women in the Arab world. Bailey points out that, “the images of Salah and Evans also subscribe to the gender and racial politics of Western liberal societies, and the desire to see women of colour depicted in positions of power and respect, to retaliate against this long history of the iconisation of the rich, white man.” But it was ultimately the Sudanese people who shared the image online which brought it to attention in the first place; and a huge part of its resonance comes from its meaning to a person in Sudan before its meaning to somebody alien to Sudanese culture.

There are so many symbols in this image that signify a new dawn for the youth in Sudan it’s dizzying

Salah’s power pose does recall classical orator stances as Ryan suggests, but it’s also typical of a Kandaka – the name given to a queen in the ancient Kushite kingdom of what’s now most often known as Nubia – and there are reliefs depicting these queens in similar poses from as far back as the 1st Century. This image is buying into a potent figure in Sudanese cultural identity, Salah’s gold moon earrings add to this status as a regal, empowered feminine ideal.

And it’s not just Salah that captures the viewer’s attention; it’s the sea of arms holding up their smartphones to film her singing. There are so many symbols in this image that signify a new dawn for the youth in Sudan it’s dizzying – and that’s what has made it so evocative.

The right place and time

When Alberto Korda took his Leica M2 to a memorial service one day in 1960 in Havana, he knew he’d be taking pictures of some of the era’s most important figures – Fidel Castro, Che Guevara; even Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were there. But he didn’t quite know he’d take the photograph that would turn Guevara into a world-renowned figure.

Alberto Korda is pictured with the uncropped and cropped versions of his photograph of Che Guevera (Credit: Alamy)

Alberto Korda is pictured with the uncropped and cropped versions of his photograph of Che Guevera (Credit: Alamy)

The image that would come to be known as Guerrillero Heroico (Heroic Guerilla Fighter) began life as its larger, uncropped original; it included a palm tree on Guevara’s left side and the profile of another man on his right. As this was a memorial service after an attack in Havana, Guevara was appropriately dressed in military attire, including his famous star beret. This photograph is so well-imprinted on our minds – and possibly on a poster in our teenage bedrooms – that it’s easy to think Guevara always wore that beret, but he didn’t. So not only did Korda have a perfect signifier of military prowess decorating his subject, but when he clicked on the flash button Guevara was looking out into the crowd, preparing to give a speech. It’s not the laughing, cigar-puffing guerrillero we see in other photos; this is a man with a searching, determined gaze.

The image would not have the same power if it wasn’t cropped, if Guevara was looking into the lens or if he wasn’t wearing the beret. It is a timeless image of hope, and combined with the beret it becomes a photographic promise of an eternal fight against capitalism.

But interestingly it’s not only this photograph that went on to iconicise Guevara.

Alter the image to give it more meaning – and wait until your subject has died

If you don’t know the famous portrait from Korda’s photograph, you know it from Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick’s stylised 1967 poster version of the same image. Icons aren’t necessarily photojournalistic; there is no pressure to make everything 100% factually correct, especially if it’s an artist making the image rather than a journalist.

Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick’s stylised version of Korda’s photograph helped seal its iconic status (Credit: Alamy)

Irish artist Jim Fitzpatrick’s stylised version of Korda’s photograph helped seal its iconic status (Credit: Alamy)

Importantly, Fitzpatrick created this only a short time after Guevara died; he said, “I thought he was one of the greatest men who ever lived and I still do in many ways. And when he was murdered, I decided I wanted to do something about it, so I created the poster. I felt this image had to come out, or he would not be commemorated otherwise, he would go where heroes go, which is usually into anonymity.”

The use of red here is not accidental. Many critics have discussed the ‘Christification’ of Che Guevara; such a red colour is as evocative of communism as it is of the Passion, sacrifice and bloodshed. Even images of Guevara’s post-mortem drew comparisons with images of Christ’s frail body after the deposition from the cross. But unlike Korda’s photograph, Fitzpatrick’s icon was already an attempt to memorialise Guevara.

Similarly, Andy Warhol made his iconic artworks of Marilyn Monroe shortly after she died, adapting a publicity shot from one of her films. Coco Dávez, a Spanish artist whose work focuses on creating Pop art-inspired modern icons, finds both these images powerful. Both transformed the subjects’ status in her eyes. “It wasn’t like Che Guevara was irrelevant beforehand, but he became an icon through this image; in the case of Warhol, and his Marilyn Monroe, it’s almost a meta-icon. She was already an icon and this image made her a super-icon.”

Warhol’s Gold Marilyn was one of several of the Hollywood star that he reproduced to create new iconic images (Credit: Alamy)

Warhol’s Gold Marilyn was one of several of the Hollywood star that he reproduced to create new iconic images (Credit: Alamy)

Warhol used the Marilyn image in clever ways too, adapting it several times; in the famous diptych, the replication of her face evokes her celebrity and how mass-produced her appearance was all over the world. The colours are unrealistic, as is how 2D an image her face has become; she is distant, out of reach, no longer the human actress on posters everywhere but now a divine icon far beyond Hollywood. Similarly, Warhol’s Gold Marilyn Monroe parodies her blonde hair and make-up, playing on the iconic signifiers with which the world associates her, but he surrounds her in gold like a Byzantine Madonna.

Pick a subject who’s already a hero

After seeing Marilyn Monroe and Che Guevara, it’s difficult to look at Shepard Fairey’s Hope artwork of Obama and not see striking parallels. It’s almost a combination of the two images; the Pop-art engagement of Warhol and the distant gaze of Korda’s guerrillero. For Dávez, icons have to be “characters that the world already have in their mind.”

Shepard Fairey’s iconic image of Obama recalls both Warhol’s Marilyn and Korda’s Guevera (Credit: Getty)

Shepard Fairey’s iconic image of Obama recalls both Warhol’s Marilyn and Korda’s Guevera (Credit: Getty)

It explains why this image of Obama captured the American imagination. “An image already popular in politics is taken and his character is turned into a work of art,” Dávez says.  It helped its passage from a press photograph to a poster that could be raised in rallies and put up on street walls. It recalls the colour scheme of the US flag, or perhaps even the combination of Democrat and Republican colours; Ryan says the image represents “the unification of the country through Obama… Replacing his skin tones with blue, red, and white – the colours of the American flag – also downplays Obama’s racial identity while affirming his patriotism, playing into the racist assumption that persons of colour are un-American.” Flat and without colour gradation, Fairey’s icon is so reminiscent of Pop art that it counters “suspicions of Obama’s ‘elitism’ by associating him with popular, accessible imagery.”

Images of a leader can be difficult to get right, and such an iconic image may not have worked with a US president who lacked Obama’s character. For Bailey, “Western audiences have become very cynical about seeing this image of the political leader in painting. You still see it in places like Syria with portraits of Assad, in North Korea with Kim Jong-il. But the recent mockery of Jon McNaughton's paintings of Donald Trump shows how jarring and ridiculous these sort of paintings now appear to Western viewers. It’s also hard not to be struck by how little self-awareness or irony that painter has shown in portraying Trump in a style that is now predominantly associated with art produced under dictatorships.”

The artist should respect the person they’re picturing

You don’t have to like somebody to respect them – or rather, you don’t need your subject to much care for what you’re doing with your camera or paintbrush to render them into an icon. Winston Churchill wasn’t too pleased when photographer Yousef Karsh tried in 1941 to take a picture of him; after politely asking Churchill to stop smoking, Karsh had to resort to plucking the cigar out of Churchill’s mouth in order to take the photograph. Karsh said Churchill looked “so belligerent he could have devoured me. It was at that instant that I took the photograph.” While not the most flattering image, his imperiousness helps make this a defining photograph.

Yousuf Karsh’s 1941 portrait of Sir Winston Churchill captures the leader with an unflattering, belligerent expression (Credit: Camera Press)

Yousuf Karsh’s 1941 portrait of Sir Winston Churchill captures the leader with an unflattering, belligerent expression (Credit: Camera Press)

It’s a complicated portrait for Dávez, who points out that her icons always pay tribute to personal heroes. “When I used to work for the press and make portraits, of people I don’t identify with, you’re the person who helps tell the story. But when art is free in the sense that you paint what you want to paint, like I have done in Faceless, I choose. I choose people that I identify with.” Churchill is somebody that she has personally never chosen to include in her iconographic images of Britons. But many do hold Churchill up as an icon – and many would do this thinking of this photograph in particular.

Back in the early ages of Christendom, the artists who painted icons would have been very religious, if not men of the cloth themselves. The making of an icon was considered prayer-like, as much of an homage to the subject as devotion would be to the finished piece; they certainly had a great deal of love for the characters from the Bible that they were painting. Alberto Korda was notably a communist who never asked for royalties for the use of his photograph of Che Guevara, and Jim Fitzpatrick also held Guevara as a personal hero.

“In the future we will all be famous for 15 minutes”. Warhol’s famous quote could suggest that his Marilyn artworks were tinged with cynicism rather than idealism. But his understanding and respect for how celestial a figure Monroe had become is firmly present in his treatment of her image. Photographer Edward Steichen said that “a portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” Take the statement into the world of modern iconography – whether painted or photographed – and there is a truth that remains. Were it not for the unique personality of the subject or the talented iconographer who was there at the right time – these images would remain lost in today’s deluge of visual jetsam.

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