Iconic Images in Visual Storytelling

Instructor: Artem Cheprasov

Artem has a doctor of veterinary medicine degree.

This lesson will define iconic images and iconography. You'll learn about a few such iconic images and how they arise. We'll also go over why they're used in storytelling.

Iconography & Iconic Images?

Have you seen the photo wherein a man is standing in front of a bunch of tanks in Tiananmen Square? Or how about the photo of American soldiers raising the American flag at Iwo Jima? These are two examples of some pretty famous images. They are, in so many words, iconic.

But what are iconic images? What is iconography? In this lesson, we go over that and more.

Iconic images are visuals that clearly identify a historic person, place, thing, or time period in such a way that many people would instantly recognize such visuals and what they represent. Iconic images are a big part of iconography, a collection of visual representations or symbols that represent a person, place, thing, or time-period and lend it a certain meaning.

Creating Iconic Images

Some iconic images are created and others just happen to the right person at the right place and time. For instance, the people who snapped the photos (and videos) of the man in Tiananmen Square couldn't have staged it. As a result, no one could 'create' the image, per se.

However, some iconic images are definitely developed and created to achieve a desired effect. For instance, the Obama Hope poster was created. It was designed around a photo that wasn't staged, but it was the Hope poster that became iconic, far more so than the photo it originated from.

There is no algorithm that can be followed to create an iconic image, but all great iconic images use a combination of design elements to bring forth a meaning to the image, such as:

  • Light
  • Space
  • Color
  • Texture

Design elements are one thing. To create a truly iconic image, a person must practice envisioning what it is that they're manipulating in order to create a certain meaning. For example, a tweak from a color photo to a black-and-white one can give an entirely different mood to an image.

Using Iconic Images

Iconic images, whether snapped by pure chance or created through the manipulation of various design elements, have been used in storytelling left and right. Magazines, especially news magazines, look to find iconic images to help tell a tale. These images help paint a picture in the reader's mind that words alone may not be able to.

For instance, it's one thing to describe a man at Tiananmen Square standing up to oppressive forces. It's an entirely different thing to see him alone, in a huge empty square, with an entire column of tanks barreling down on him. He's all alone but he's not moving.

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