What Makes an Iconic Image?

What is an iconic image? Is it an image that provokes? Forces us into an involuntary show of emotion? Inspires, or even mesmerizes? The definition of an iconic image may not be that simple. After all, images tend to grow in stature as time passes by, much like an ordinary human being who becomes iconic through his or her sheer body of work. Speaking of icons and what makes an iconic image, legendary photographer Mary Ellen Mark shares her views, many of which can easily be the guiding light for a photographer:

“An iconic image… it’s intriguing, it’s mysterious, it makes you wonder. You think about it. It’s beautiful, yet strange. It’s an image that will last. It’s an image that talks to people and it says something across the board to people no matter what nationality, no matter what age, it says something to them.

Every great photographer has a few of them in them and it’s something that we all strive to do.”

girl smoking mary ellen mark

“My photographs are emotional and I want them to be emotional. I want them to touch people and make them feel. It’s hard to say what I am looking for. I’m looking for humor. I’m looking for irony. I’m looking for intensity. I’m looking for what makes a good photograph.”

mary ellen mark photo

“Photography was always an intense process for me. I never felt it was easy.

To do anything well is difficult. I’m not just saying photography, I think to be a great musician is very difficult. To be a great designer is very difficult. To be a film maker is very difficult. So, to do anything well is very hard. To be OK at something is easy. But if you really want to be exceptional at something it’s hard.”


“I think what really excites me about taking photographs is that I might get a great one. I might make an iconic picture, if I’m lucky.”

Advice to Documentary Photographers

iconic images from mary ellen mark

“If you really want to do it, expect it to be tough these days simply because you don’t have the advantages I had when I started. The advantage of magazines really need you. Today magazines prefer to use more commercial people. They want more slick imagery. But I think if you love it and you really want to do it then you must do it. Because you will never forgive yourself if you’re not doing something you cared about or you believe in, if you don’t do it now.”

Like This Article?

Don't Miss The Next One!

Join over 100,000 photographers of all experience levels who receive our free photography tips and articles to stay current:

3 responses to “What Makes an Iconic Image?”

  1. Jonathan says:

    VERY in appropriate. Honestly m scarred for life.

  2. matthew says:

    who is the photographer who took the first photo of the kids smoking in the pool? I would like to buy copyright.

  3. Steve says:

    That’s the work of Mary Ellen Mark, she died in 2015

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

New! Want more photography tips? We now offer a free newsletter for photographers:

No, my photos are the best, close this forever