Iconic photos

Despite being such a young “art”, photography has already notched up its fair share of masters. Someone has even taken the trouble to document a lot of their work on Wordpress blog with the title Iconic Photos.

Each photograph is accompanied by explanatory text around the photographer and the situation the photograph was created in.

For example, legendary portrait photographer YousefSir Winston Churchill. The text explains how Karsh annoyed Churchill in order to capture the spirit of indigence and determination of World War Two's leading statesman.

Look how beautifully the old large format camera Karsh would have used throws the background out of focus. These old film cameras are probably still unmatched when it comes to separating a subject from its background.

Also, Karsh has managed to control his lighting beautifully. I seem to remember reading somewhere that Karsh did not use flash for his portraits, but rather chose to light them with bright tungsten lights. That probably explains why all the images I've seen from him are in black and white too - he probably didn't want to fuss with matching the colour balance warm tungsten lights.

What I found particularly interesting is the comparison between the famous portrait of Churchill and another frame from the same session which is not iconic. The writer points out that Churchill smiling fails to capture his personality. However, photographically, there are more subtle differences which separate the two images.

Looking at the two frames indicate that Karsh spent a lot of time in the darkroom perfecting the final print from his large negatives. The background lighting from the two images is very different to my eye. It's probably likely he did a lot of manual dodging and burning to darken the background in the final chosen image . . . and much less on the rejected image. Note how he does not seem to have got the dodging and burning quite right over Churchill's left arm and shoulder in the final iconic image.

Note also how the position of his subject is slightly different in relation to the background wooden panels. In the iconic image, the background “fits” and is not distracting. In the reject, the background is distracting and seems to fight with the subject.

Richard Avedon's classic “ Dovima with the” images are also there. As is W Eugene Smith's “ A Walk to the Paradise Garden”.

South African photographer Kevin Carter's image, “ Vulture Stalking a Child” is one of the most viewed images on the site. The writer explains the tragic circumstances surrounding the image and that just a few weeks later, Carter would commit suicide.

Carter was member of the legendary “Bang Bang Club” of photojournalists who captured the end of apartheid in South Africa and the violence which erupted in the country at that time.

Carter is, however, best known for the “Vulture” image he captured in the Sudan. He won international awards, acclaim and a signing with a leading international agency as the result of the image. He also won a lot of criticism for not doing anything for the child other than chasing the vulture away.

Looking back on this image though and as sad as it is, I personally can't help respecting Carter's decision not to do anything. It's one of the fundamental points of being a journalist or a photojournalist - you are only supposed to be there as a witness. If to treat the subjects you photograph any other way, as serious and sad as the situation may be, where do you start and where do you end?

It's easy to be an armchair critic and judge the actions, or inactions of someone working in a violent and catastrophic war zone. If you are not going to simply be a witness to what is happening, at what point are you going to take some form of action?

Do you start with assisting the target of a “ necklacing” murder and risk the lives of yourself, those working with you and the lives of future journalists who find themselves witnessing the same event in the future?

As a journalist or photojournalist, yours is not the job to judge the events - simply capture them and disseminate them. That's what Carter did and he was judged by some sitting comfortably somewhere else.

Then he killed himself.

The “Iconic photos” blog is a fascinating collection of some of the best images ever captured - mostly if not all on film. Even when staged, film seems to capture a sense of honesty in a scene that digital images seem to lack.

Then again, maybe it's not the tools, it's just the hand that's using it that makes all the difference.

First published on my Durban Photographer site.

Photo credits: Andrei Kuzmik.

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November 11, 2013


Thanks fro writing. Very interesting article.

November 11, 2013


Congratulations!! Very beautiful blog! I like "A Walk To The Paradise Garden" and "Dovima with the Elephants"! And I like picture where Churchill was smiling :)! And last but not least and I really like your portfolio! Thank you for sharing!!

November 11, 2013


very interesting article, I enjoyed reading it and followed up on all the images. the very last was hardest to view, and had a photographer friend who was sent as a journalist to capture the children of brazil that were living on the beach... what he saw there made him come home, sell all his cameras and close his studio. it was years before he could hold a camera again. we have an interesting job as photographers!

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