Talk to any traveling photographer for long and the words “iconic photograph” will come tumbling out of their mouth as surely as a bus-load of tourists with selfie-sticks will spill out the moment you arrive at a destination and set up a tripod, thrilled to be there alone. As goals go, it sure beats wanting nothing more from our images than just perfect focus and exposure. In fact I can’t think of a more lofty goal than wanting to create an iconic image.
But I’m learning two things about creating iconic photographs. The first is this: it probably never happens when you’re trying. The problem with lofty goals is that sometimes – no: often – they aren’t hit by aiming at them. Hope that your photographs become iconic in some way, sure. But as goals go, it’s probably better to aim at creating a photograph that embodies the things for which iconic images become known: a rare glimpse of humanity, or a moment in time that represents something larger. After all, that’s what an icon is – something symbolic, something tangible and understandable that represents something larger, less tangible. The point is not really that your photograph is or isn’t iconic – others will decide that for you. The point is whether it connects on a level that’s more universal than just your family or the people in your camera club. The point is: does it mean something, or tell a larger story. And that has way more to do with who you are, how you see, and where you look for symbols and meaning, than it does with the camera you use, or the settings. This has way more to do with the storyteller than the words he chooses.
“If I can find something that resonates more strongly with the human heart or imagination, I have a shot at the kind of connection in a photograph that one day others might call iconic. It’s the connection that matters. It’s the meaning.”
The second thing I know is that making an iconic photograph is not the same as photographing icons. The Eiffel Tower is a symbol, an icon; a photograph of the Eiffel Tower is much less likely to be. And that’s where travel photographers fall down so often. We arrive in a place like Paris, and rush to the big sites: Notre Dame, L’Arc de Triomphe, Tour Eiffel. Sacre Coeur. And why not? Those places have become what they are because they astonish, they mean something historically. But it is rare that those places become the subject of our best work. They might be in our best work, but they won’t be the subject. The subject has to be deeper.
Your best work when you travel, over the span of years and locations, will likely not be the ones that come from a standard, templated experience: go to the Taj Mahal, stand in the right place, take the same photograph as millions have already made. No, your best work will come from exploring the other side, the empty quarters, the places off the beaten path. Or, if they happen in those well-known places, they’ll happen when you’ve been there long enough, know the place well enough to see something different, to find a moment that means something more than “I went to the Taj Mahal and it looks like this.” We’ve seen the Taj Mahal, now show us something we haven’t seen. It’s got to connect if you want to cut through the veil of the mundane that so many of these photographs have become now that we’re swimming in a sea of them.
That’s the real challenge of travel photography. It’s not making another sharp photograph of the Taj Mahal. It’s being there, being really present, and having eyes open to all of it, not just the big stuff on the postcards, and finding something there that means something and pulls at us in new ways. In my own work from Venice I’ve chosen over the last 6 years to photograph gondolas, easily one of the more iconic subjects you could choose. But if my images of gondolas ever mean something more to people (big if) it won’t be because of the gondolas. It’ll be something more. Some unique moment, some unexpected juxtaposition, some human story that connects those gondolas to a larger story. That’s where icons and symbols play best – in a larger story. The larger the better, but by large I don’t mean “epic.” I mean more universal.
There is no shortage of gondola photographs, and many of them far better than what I could create. But if I can find something that resonates more strongly with the human heart or imagination, I have a shot at the kind of connection in a photograph that one day others might call iconic. It’s the connection that matters. It’s the meaning.
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Regarding photographing iconic subjects: I think there’s something in our DNA that drives us to mimic, a compulsion to do what we’ve seen others do already. And since it’s in our DNA, the fight to resist mimicry is a difficult one. So, I often capture the iconic view of an iconic subject… satisfying my lizard brain (that’s where the mimicry DNA resides)… then MOVE ON to something completely different, so to speak, when (if) I feel good about pulling out my tripod and view camera to capture something I’ve connected with.
I appreciate your great advice and great insights, David. Thanks again for lending some clarity to this strange world of art photography.
Thanks, Riley. I suspect your exactly right about both the genetic need to copy and the benefit of just doing it, getting it out of the way, and moving on to more creative efforts rather than spending all that energy fighting the lizard. Thanks for chiming in!
Thanks for the fab article David
I wish I had read this before our recent holiday to New York. Gosh I struggled not to produce the standard images we have all seen of the iconic landmarks;-).
Love your second image, BTW.
It was a good reminder to myself to always look for the humanity in a scene/subject.
Sometimes I think that we aim to tell the whole story with a single image, and end up saying very little at all. Maybe better to tell a tiny part of the story in great detail with an image, and let the viewer participate by filling in the rest of the story.
I know I missed a great shot earlier this year. I ran around Philly (a great city to visit by the way) trying to photograph some of the sights and of course, ran the Rocky steps to get a shot of the city. But I ran passed a beautiful scene of pure joy in the ancient and gritty subway system – I was too busy rushing around that I didn’t think to stop and photograph this amazing bongo drum player lighting up the station with his infections beats. Beside him were several youngsters dancing their hearts out in perfect rhythm. It was a truly unique Philadelphia moment filled with dynamic emotion, humanity and so much more. I just wasn’t looking for this kind of moment and so I didn’t see it until I was long gone. This small scene would have told a story of the Philadelphia experience better than a city scape from a famous vantage point.
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Your words are powerful and honest, and I that I have never thought I would ever take an “iconic photo” in my life, but maybe I have and never really thought of it that way. Both of the images that you posted are strong and tell different stories than most, when photographing the gondolas or their drivers. The first image is beautiful and the couple, if they get the image, will probably cherish it as “iconic”, I know I would, if it were me and my husband. Thanks for sharing
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Great Post, very informative
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this topic. Finally coming also to a conclusion that you might get the best from the place, where you live.
Always enjoy your posts. I was in Paris earlier this year and although I took some photos of the iconic subjects, my favourite shots from the trip were the less obvious ones: the shadows underneath the Eiffel Tower, a little boy chasing pigeons at Notre Dame, the rush of people in a Metro tunnel.
Great post David!
Wish the grey print were changed to black, or even better, dark tan on light tan which has been shown easiest to read. Other than that, I now look at your photos and read the large print captions with the idea you’re expressing affirmations of my own thinking about photography and life. It’s a good reminder of what I need to do to remain present to the moment.
I am less and less surprised by your words (as you’ve set your own bar high), and more and more inspired, and moved. Thanks, always, for the encouragement and inspiration.
(And, that gondola image is epic!)