FROM SYMBOL TO ICON
By MICHAEL PERKINS
HOW MANY SECONDS DID IT TAKE FOR YOU TO IDENTIFY THE EDIFICE seen in the above image? I’m guessing that your response time was predictably brief. That’s the power of a photographic icon, a power which redounds to the benefit of all interpretive photographers. At the time of this post’s publication, it is exactly sixty years since the opening of Frank Lloyd Wright’s final masterpiece, New York’s Guggenheim Museum. In those six decades, the “Gugg” has more than delivered on its promise to provide a unique setting for the most adventurous art of the age. But in the process, it has also become a piece of art, a statement no less resonant than the thousands of paintings and sculptures it has housed.
We’ve often written here, as many have, of the challenge of photographing things that, over time, nearly the entire world seems to have snapped. Make your own list: the Eiffel Tower, the Pyramids, the Empire State, Big Ben, all names linked with objects or sites which fully meet any criteria for an icon. These things are so very familiar that, some billions of images into the game, they can become static as subject matter, resistant to revealing anything new about themselves. We admire the postcard view of a place and work to replicate it endlessly, almost making it meaningless. And yet, with the right approach, even a weathered subject can be reborn inside your camera.
In the case of the Guggenheim, a place which stores art is itself an art masterpiece, almost to the point of eclipsing the works that are showcased within it. Its outward form is one of a handful of things that is so recognizable that it resists stasis. It can, visually, be almost endlessly reinterpreted, if we look for the correct idea. It can be simplified to a collection of light and dark planes: it can be negativized, filtered, cropped almost to abstraction (as we have here), reimagined from any angle, and serve as an unmistakable cue to our collective brains. Certainly a simple photographic recording of the building in its natural state (the post card shot), as seen in the small inset image, is effective, because the structure itself is so objectively powerful. However, that same view can be sliced almost to the dimensions of a view through a mail slot and it will still communicate what it is, still generate strength. That’s what an icon can do for photography: become the gift that keeps on giving.
The Guggenheim was created specifically as a home for various mid-century art movements that had no official home within the conventional museum community of the Eisenhower era. Its design passed through many hands before completion, which happened after the deaths of both Frank Lloyd Wright and Solomon Guggenheim. Even after substantial revision and interference from people who frankly should never have been allowed admission to the place, the “Gugg” emerged with its essential elements intact, so far advanced as a public space that even now, sixty years on, it seems as if it’s just arriving for the first time. Some icons not only indelibly define themselves but also the times that created them, with a permanence that continues to feed the imaginations of other artists looking to craft their own visions. One critic once described the museum as a birthday cake. Perhaps that’s its magic: an occasion of joy, alight with illumination, imbued with the power to grant your every wish.