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Have we reached the end of the era of “iconic photojournalism”?

By 25 March 2010No Comments

It’s hardly news that in the last five years or so, photography–or, more accurately, production of photographs–has increased at almost exponential degrees. As of six months ago, Flickr boasted 4 Billion images. Almost a year ago, Facebook claimed to hit its 15 Billion mark, which has probably doubled since then. All of this in the span of barely half a decade.

And while most of the billions of images floating around the internet are noise, there’s still a lot of signal to be found. The advent of dSLRs revolutionized photojournalism, and the ever-competitive field finds itself inundated with more and more people. Wire services like AP, Reuters, and Getty flood the news channels with thousands of amazing images daily. One need look no further than Boston.Com’s Big Picture or SacBee’s The Frame to find riveting, powerful, documentary images culled from the steady stream of media coming from the front lines. And while this is almost entirely a good thing–imagine how differently history would have played out if we’d always had this kind of unfettered access–I can’t help but wonder if the sheer volume of incoming images doesn’t dilute the impact of the individual photographs.

The amount we appreciate something is a lot of times in direct proportion to its scarcity. Which do we savor more: the first cookie in the box of fifty, or the last? What about the only we’ve tasted in a year? I look back to some of the most iconic photographs of the 20th Century and wonder if they would have reached the same level of fame and cultural impact if they had been produced today. I think of Steve McCurry’s Afghan Girl, or Jeff Widener’s Tank Man and wonder, “If I had seen these images while perusing the weekly update of The Big Picture, would I have given them much more notice than a few seconds of attention before moving on to the next photo? Would other people?”

And while much of the fame of images like McCurry’s or Widener’s can be attributed to exposure (a National Geographic cover photo from 1984 reached more people than most news wire images do today), Boston.Com or SacBee reach millions of users daily themselves. Likewise, it could be argued that there are many photos that come in through the news wires that easily rival Afghan Girl or Tank Man in terms of technical skill, emotional resonance, or sheer power. Yet none of these new images will likely ever affect the cultural landscape as profoundly as they did.

I try to think of recent photojournalistic images that had the reach and impact that the older ones did, and nothing comes to mind. And I can’t help but wonder if, just as we will never again see another band like The Beatles, does the saturation of images brought on by the dSLR revolution and the fragmentation of major news outlets mean we will likewise never again see images with the global and cultural resonance of Afghan Girl or Tank Man? If there is more wheat now than there was chaff yesterday, has it become nigh-impossible for any single image to make a meaningful impact? Have we reached the end of iconic documentary images?

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