“How to Revisit an Iconic Photograph”

I recently tackled the idea of participating to Alec Soth project of revisiting an iconic photograph. I should better say that I am interested in the project, see how participants will contribute and how Soth will wrap up the whole thing. And if it happens that I shoot something that could be relevant why not posting it. I don’t want to stage something, rather do some unplanned photograph with a well-know shot in mind and see how it comes out. By the way I did that before and every time I see a group of women sat on a bench I can’t prevent myself to evaluate the possibility of a shot.

Sunday was a particularly warm and sunny October day here in New England. My family and I went downtown Boston for a walk. On Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway there is a water fountain for kids and it was written that my two boys won’t came back dry at home. They had a lot of fun, and so did I. The motif of kids playing in water is very cliche of course. But there was something great here, because of the particular light at this moment of the day, and some smoke coming out from the ground together with the water. With a certain angle, you had such results.

Once in a while I did a lot of shots of same subject – which is completely unusual for me. And the result came that way with very few post processing. No real merit except for a typical “f8 and be there” situation (that was f11 actually).

While doing these photographs the idea of the Soth project came to mind with a very famous picture from Leonard Freed. That of two black youngsters playing with water from a fire hydrant in Harlem back in 1963. I guess that picture is the ultimate representation of the cliche. It kinds of starts and ends here. Well, it actually does not end here since the reinterpretation of motifs is part of the photographic tradition – read Goeff Dyers The Ongoing Moment – and the starting point of Soth project.

Leonard Freed - Harlem, 1963

So the next day I thought “fine, I got nice pictures to fulfill the assignment”. Kids playing with water, revisiting Freed’s picture of the two young black people, with that smoke and light adding a nice surreal effect.

But wait… what makes Freed’s picture that iconic ? I believe the word is important, it is not just about a good picture. Something else must be / have been at work. By the way there is a story accompanying Soth’s project in which he elaborates on that. My understanding is that you have to think about what makes a shot iconic, and frankly this is no easy thing to figure out in the first place. Re-thinking about the picture from Freed I realize there might be a very special and straightforward reason why it stands that way though. Black people, Harlem, 1963. Actually the picture is highly symbolic of MLK and the Civil Rights movement. It is about the non-violent conquest of the basic right to equally share and enjoy the American soil. I believe the picture represents that almost literally.

But then how could you revisit that ? In a sense the fact clearly described in Freed’s shot is not the literal reason why it has become iconic. And if I do a shot of kids playing in the water myself it falls short, right ?. I am starting to think I’d better choose another picture to revisit…

That said an interesting thing about Alec Soth’s writing on “How to Revisit an Iconic Photograph” is that he points at very specific photographic reasons – as opposed to the historical context. Speaking about Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” :

” I’m fascinated by the whole notion of iconic pictures. Of the 80,000 F.S.A. pictures, why is this one so memorable? “

And actually he suggests that form rather than content justifies the iconic status of that particular photograph.

The most fascinating element in photographic portraiture is the subject’s eyes. I remember being stunned when I first saw a print of “Migrant Mother” that the eyes of the subject, Florence Owens Thompson, are dramatically out of focus. It is a technically imperfect picture, but of course it is an absolutely great image. Why? In remaking the picture, it became clear that that some of this has to do with the fact that the children’s eyes are hidden. If that weren’t the case, the picture would be about the children. Instead, the picture is about the mother and about her plight.

Now I can see why St Lazard from Cartier Bresson can be considered iconic, as well as I can pinpoint reasons why the aforementioned shot of women on a bench from Winogrand is a great picture – to take few examples. But that leaves the idea of revisiting an iconic shot rather open.

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