Still images have a deep affinity with memory. A full recollection—say of a person—almost always involves some visual re-experiencing of expressions, gestures and bearing, some of which are held frozen in the mind.footnote1 Moreover, traumatic events are more likely to be mentally stilled: people who have undergone severe traumas may have flashbacks as isolated pictures, while they recall ordinary events in a narrative manner.footnote2 Memories continually change through repeated recollection, yet their tendency over time is to a reduction which mirrors that of photography—like a stack of snapshots repeatedly returned to. Such memories become archetypal crystallizations of identity—slides in the carousel of the mind.

Photography’s connection to individual remembering also extends to the collective. Even in an age of instantly available video, iconic images—those that are reproduced insistently in the media and dwell most saliently in collective memory—are more likely to be still photographs. Television crews were present at the execution of Nguyễn Văn Lém, captured by Eddie Adams, and the escape of Phan Thi. Kim Phúc from the napalm attack which left her terribly burned. Their footage did not achieve anything like the attention of the photos. While these were certainly easier to circulate at that time, they also controlled the horror of the scenes by portraying a single moment, and highlighted particular facial expressions.footnote3 Single frames also tamed and ordered the horde of contingencies; both the film of Kim Phúc’s flight and the other shots taken at the time by Nick Út and David Burnett lack the singular coherence and sense of the landmark image. Despite the fact that videos of both scenes are now easily accessible, few see them.footnote4

The many theoretical attempts to prise apart this affinity of memory and still images—by Freud, Proust, Bergson, Kracauer, Bazin and others—are part of a general suspicion of the visual and its vulgar temptations, and the general intellectual denigration of mass media and the tastes of ordinary people.footnote5 When Lewis Mumford in the 1950s called for a revolt against the mass of images in promiscuous circulation, it was as a reassertion of a patrician culture of quality against the crowd.footnote6 This disdain for photography arises out of its ubiquity, accessibility and cheapness. How can something so mechanical and available not be a betrayal of the mental and spiritual infinite that is gestured towards in the philosophical tradition that extends from Bergson to Deleuze? Such writings were published at a time of a new and swiftly intensifying media culture. Large masses of people were confronted with a vast number of commercial images and sounds that increasingly saturated their existence. Nevertheless, from this disorienting whirl of repeated images, there emerged a few ‘iconic’ examples that would stand above the rest, becoming firmly consolidated in historical memory, and appearing to condense around them wider collective frames of understanding. Yet in recent years this process seems to have faltered or even stalled. How and why? Now that the resources of the past—an unfathomable panoply of images—lie at our fingertips, this raises a second and interrelated puzzle: are today’s viewers beyond the situation outlined by twentieth-century theorists? Are there ways of examining these issues that have more to say than the well-worn concepts of trauma, repression and recovery, and the conventional divide between organic memory and mechanical mnemonic fragments?

Famously, Benjamin used the notion of aura to describe the way in which relived experiences were bound to a particular time and place.footnote7 In modern parlance, aura casts its halo around the episodic memory of events and source memory—how and when we came to know something. Photography weakened aura—‘a strange tissue of time and place’—by mechanical repetition, by throwing up the same advertisement which we see over and over again at various points, casting the pall of uniformity over unique experience. But this is merely part of a more general effect in which the mass production of standardized objects—from tract housing to clothing—erodes auratic experience.

Yet, while photographic images are reproducible, the experience of viewing analogue prints was not, being tied to a fixed location or the moment of first seeing them, or the vicissitudes of the print which ages and can be damaged. Photographs and place are used together as mnemonic props, from the ordering of prints in a family album, to the framed pictures that remain in the same position on mantelpiece or desk. Plainly, since the media-saturated interwar years, there has been another turn of the wheel towards increased speed of circulation, magnitude of production, ubiquity, weightlessness and apparent immateriality.footnote8 In the general media flux, has the power of photography to serve memory been eroded? Can the past, present and future of the image still be developed through sustained reflection amid the torrent of fleeting images and words?

A critical site of cultural memory and photographic reproduction, the so-called ‘iconic’ image was regularly generated by the wars of the analogue era. Curiously, wars in the digital age have only rarely yielded such images, and with a very different character than previously. The most sustained account of photographic icons is Robert Hariman and John Lucaites’s book, No Caption Needed, which defines them as images that cause immediate controversy on publication, contain a contentious mix of familiar elements and newsworthy novelty, and bind up social and political contradictions which generate lengthy debate. Icons are eloquent but in no way experimental or avant-garde. The basis for their repetition and recognizability is that they play to ‘middlebrow’ cliché, appealing to the liberal-democratic centre with conventional iconography and conservative composition.footnote9 For Hariman and Lucaites, the icon only operates in democracies, for it endows the viewer with an awareness of social forms and state actions, providing a ‘civic education’ in democratic ideals. People speak to each other through photographs by performing social roles within them—by what they do, how they behave, how they express themselves in pose and gesture, and how they claim social space. But if icons are immediately recognizable for most people, a survey of college students found that they had little specific knowledge of either the photographs or the events that they portrayed.footnote10 Such images activate tacit knowledge (for instance, of the conduct of war) by placing that knowledge within a conventional, generic scene. Most saliently, like all photography in uncontrolled conditions, the particular and the general are brought into acute contact. It is one thing to know that napalm burns children, another to have an individual’s suffering laid out in prose, and quite another to see the agony on the faces of individual victims. No Caption Needed provides the most systematic and carefully researched view of the photographic icon. Yet three questions may be asked of this account: how does the icon fit into the field of commercial photography as a whole? Who exactly is spoken to? And is there only one type of icon?

On the first question, the interplay between novelty and familiarity is an integral part of capitalist culture, and the balance struck between the two is a core conundrum of commercial imagery, especially in advertising. The viewers’ attention must be seized by a puzzle or even by a shocking juxtaposition, yet at the same time the image must be swiftly understood, so that each component tends to lean on a well-worn cliché. The advertising image is usually stripped of explicit politics but marinated in the implicit. A perfect example of ideology at work, the artificiality, performance and theatricality of stock images which permeate the visual world are naturalized to appear as real. footnote11 This is also true of many photo-ops in journalism which are collaborations between the stagers, the subjects and the photographers to create an ideal reality so conformist as to be near-invisible. Marta Zarzycka and Martijn Kleppe analyse tropes in the World Press Photograph competition, those common points at which photojournalism approaches pure convention in scenes of mourning women, a civilian facing soldiers or children playing at war. Related to icons but unexceptional, these are frames which hold familiar and undemanding content. Ideologically ready-to-wear, they conform to marketable and searchable concepts (‘mourning woman’), in which all the familiar hierarchical and gender relations are set in stone.footnote12 If we think of photojournalism as commercial imagery plus explicit politics, the iconic image is the rare case where the dance of cliché and novelty is so compelling and raised to such a high pitch that it is hard to look away or forget.