Media icon

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Buzz Aldrin when he first stepped on the moon on July 21, 1969

As a media icon in are cultural studies and media studies media outstanding prominent images called. If they are permanently inscribed in the collective visual memory , they can be called "icons of collective visual memory".

Basics and boundaries

The term “media icon” is derived from the “ icon ” (from the Greek  εἰκών eikón , image, image ' ), which designates a ritually consecrated image of a saint that is worshiped in the Orthodox Church and made according to canonical specifications.

The decay of the aura of the work of art, as Walter Benjamin described it in 1936 with regard to modern reproduction techniques, can be interpreted as de-iconization. Even in the mass cultures of the 20th century, however, images emerged that - remotely comparable to religious icons - symbolically condensed higher values ​​and patterns of meaning and, supported by new types of reproduction, acquired an aura of the mythical.

In the 1990s, the flood of images from the mass media became an issue in academia and the general public. The use, effect and interpretation of the images and the changed thinking in and about images were discussed. "Have won Knowing the importance of images in modern media society is the term icon 'as the 1990s from its narrowly defined context of the icons in the vernacular since Ostkirche been removed." 1994 used Gottfried Boehm in return of Images use the term Ikonische Wende (iconic turn) . The discussion about “the new power of images” gives rise to a new term for images that protrude culturally from the flood of images: the media icons.

They were “… special, technically and electronically generated images that had the power to make and write history. Due to their reproducibility and speed of spread, they were also able to penetrate societies and jump over borders, i.e. tended to be omnipresent and global. […] Media icons differ from the images or icons of the fine arts primarily in that the peculiarities and regularities of their media image carriers are structurally inscribed in them consumed, have become media icons themselves.

Media icons are the images and image sequences that protrude from the flood of images that have been generated technically and electronically since the beginning of the media society in the 20th century. What they have in common is their media effectiveness:

  • They intervene in the historical process and “make” history.
  • They shape the process of remembering this very story, that is, they “write” history.
  • They have their own story, their visual story.

Photojournalism icons

The American communication scientist David D. Perlmutter mentions (in Photojournalism and foreign policy ) differences and features that are to be considered similarly in the discussion about media icons.

He differentiates between “discrete icon” and “generic icon” (cf. Katharina Lobinger: Visuelle Kommunikationforschung .) With the generic icon, the actors, the situation or the locations can change, but the motif remains the same. Perlmutter names the image type “Starving Child in Africa” as an example. In contrast, the discrete icon is a single photo, with certain image elements and the following features, among others:

The "hooded man" meets the criteria of a discrete icon
  • Celebrity: The photo is recognized for at least a generation. Politicians, media people and scientists attribute extraordinary importance to it.
  • Instantaneousness: The photo quickly became famous and will be published for years.
  • Event relevance: The photo is based on a relevant event.
  • Composition: The photo has a striking and convincing composition.
  • Profit: The photo is a profitable commercial product.
  • Prominence: The photo will be printed on media covers.
  • Frequency: The picture is reprinted frequently.
  • Transposability: The photo is printed in various media such as books or newspapers.
  • Originality and cultural resonance: The photo refers to scenes from religion and history and thus refers to earlier iconic images.
  • Metonymy : The photo seems to condense a moment of an event and symbolically express the entire event.


Portrait of Mao Zedong at the Gate of Heavenly Peace

The term icon in the sense of a media icon tends to be inflated. Further variants can be distinguished. If the images are inscribed in the collective image memory, they are declared to be “icons of the collective image memory” (in popular science, to “ key images that move the world”).

Some media icons are referred to as “super icons”, for example when they refer to the “superlative image” of the crucified or suffering Christ , like the photograph of the hooded man from Abu Ghuraib , or are modeled on other iconic precursors, such as the portrait of Mao Zedong at the gate of the Heavenly Peace , which was used in the media as the “ Mona Lisa of China”.

The individual media themselves have produced their own icons. There is talk of “icons of press photography ”, “icons of contemporary art ” and “icons of film history ”.

In many cases, images and products are assigned to a certain type of media icon: the Coca-Cola bottle is an advertising icon, the VW Beetle is a design icon.

Regardless of the discourse of the “iconic turn”, the term icon is used to denote what was groundbreaking, unique and symbolic for an area in its time , for example as an “ architectural icon ” (such as the Eiffel Tower or the Sydney Opera House ), as an “icon of the Astronomy "(the Hubble space telescope ) or as a" shipping icon "( Neckermann ).


Different combinations of examples result from different sources and perspectives. In the originally narrower sense, only a certain image or sequence of images is described as a media icon. In inflationary usage, it happens that an event or a person is elevated to an icon or media icon as soon as an outstanding motif can be marked in the flood of images, illustrations, photos or prints.

Fine art icons

The creation of Adam , detail from the ceiling fresco in the Sistine Chapel

Icons of the visual arts and icons of modern mass media differ in the process of their creation. As “super icons” or “superlative images” of art, which in turn became a model for numerous later creations, are valid

Icons of modernity

Che Guevara: Guerrillero Heroico . Photo: Alberto Korda

Stars and Idols

→ Main article: Star (person)

Charlie Chaplin as a tramp, around 1917

For many people, visual memory is activated and the image is called up if the person represented in the media (or an object or an event) is only mentioned. Well-known personalities from the fields of art, sport, science and politics have become "icons of the 19th, 20th, 21st centuries" or, like Charlie Chaplin, icons of modernity. Sigmund Freud , the Pope and the Beatles , for example, have been declared “pop icons” . Andy Warhol, on the other hand, is mentioned as an “art icon”. The surrealist painter Salvador Dalí stood out for his eccentric behavior and his twisted mustache . Angerer the Elder created a picture in 2004 entitled Ikone Dalí . Some of the personalities and even fictional characters become role models , such as idols in youth culture .

Icons of annihilation and the negative

The boy in the Warsaw Ghetto can be seen in the middle in the foreground.
Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, view from the inside (1945)

Pictures of the Holocaust :

Later icons of the negative:


  • Cécile Engel (Ed.): Images in the head. Icons of contemporary history. DuMont, Cologne 2009, ISBN 978-3-8321-9216-7 . Book accompanying the exhibition in the House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany, Bonn, 21 May to 11 October 2009, traveling exhibition from spring 2010, in the Contemporary History Forum Leipzig of the Foundation House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany, summer 2011 / Foundation House of the History of the Federal Republic of Germany / until July 2012 in the Historical Museum Hannover
  • Gijs van Hensbergen: Guernica. the biography of a twentieth-century icon. Bloomsbury Publisher, New York et al. a. 2004, ISBN 1-58234-124-9 .
  • Martin Kemp: Christ to Coke: How Image Becomes Icon. Oxford University Press, 2011, ISBN 978-0-19-958111-5 .
  • Johannes Kirschenmann, Ernst Wagner (ed.): Images that mean the world: 'icons' of image memory and their communication via databases (= context of art education. Volume 4). Kopaed, Munich 2006, ISBN 978-3-938028-64-3 .
  • Thomas Knieper: Conveying history through icons of press photography. In: Johannes Kirschenmann, Ernst Wagner (ed.): Images that mean the world: 'icons' of image memory and their communication via databases. Kopaed, Munich 2006, pp. 59-76. (= Context of art education. Volume 4).
  • Gerhard Paul : Pictures that made history: 1900 to today. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2011, ISBN 978-3-525-30024-4 , p. 7 ff. ( Digitized from GoogleBooks).
  • Kathrin Raminger: Ikone: How can this generic term be applied on a general level in art and image studies? What distinguishes iconic images and how do they work? University of Vienna (PDF; 4 pages).

Web links


Individual evidence

  1. Quoted from Kathrin Raminger: Ikone: How can this generic term be applied on a general level in art and image studies? What distinguishes iconic images and how do they work?
  2. ^ Gerhard Paul: Pictures that made history. 1900 until today. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2011, pp. 8, 4.
  3. a b c d e Gerhard Paul: Pictures that made history. 1900 until today. Göttingen 2011, p. 8, 3.
  4. Gottfried Boehm: The return of pictures . Visualization concepts in the sciences. In: Gottfried Boehm (Ed.): What is a picture? Munich 1994, p. 11-38 .
  5. Christa Maar, Hubert Burda (ed.): Iconic Turn. The new power of images . Dumont, Cologne 2004.
  6. ^ Gerhard Paul: Pictures that made history. 1900 until today. P. 7, 2.
  7. ^ Gerhard Paul, p. 8, 1.
  8. ^ Gerhard Paul, p. 7.
  9. David D. Perlmutter: Photojournalism and foreign policy
  10. ^ Katharina Lobinger: Visual Communication Research
  11. ^ Gerhard Paul, pp. 9, 5 f.
  12. ^ Gerhard Paul, p. 8, 2 f.
  13. Shipping icon Neckermann is broke. In: Handelsblatt . July 18, 2012, accessed August 4, 2012 .
  14. ^ Gerhard Paul, pp. 8, 6
  15. Nefertiti - The Story of an IconN. ( Memento of November 27, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) In: , accessed on December 7, 2012
  16. a b Gerhard Paul, p. 9, 1
  17. ^ Hans-Jürgen Kutzner: Liturgy as performance? Considerations for an artistic approach. LIT Verlag, Münster 2009, p. 163 f . ( limited preview in Google Book Search [accessed August 4, 2012]).
  18. ^ French Cultural Icons. ( Memento of June 14, 2011 in the Internet Archive ) In: , accessed on July 5, 2012.
  19. The Black Square. In: , accessed on October 3, 2012.
  20. ^ Kai Artinger: Gijs Van Hensbergen: Guernica. In: H-ArtHist. Humboldt University of Berlin, January 27, 2005, accessed on August 23, 2012 .
  21. Photography exhibition ›Highlights‹ . In: , accessed on October 6, 2012.
  22. Ingeborg Wiensowski: self-promoter Picasso Photos. The I can do anything guy . In: Spiegel Online , July 10, 2012; Retrieved July 8, 2014
  23. The famous tongue photo,
  24. Che Guevara icon. His likeness is explosive. Interview with René Burri . In: one day , June 2, 2008.
  25. Jörn Glasenapp : The sword thief of Léopoldville. Robert Lebeck's key picture of the decolonization of Africa. In: Gerhard Paul (Ed.): The Century of Pictures: 1949 to today , Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, Göttingen 2008, ISBN 978-3-525-30012-1 , pp. 242–249.
  26. Gábor Paál: What is beautiful? Aesthetics and Knowledge . (PDF; 96 kB), p. 158. Quote: "... the double helix has become an icon of genetic research and can be found on at least every second advertisement in a life science company."
  27. ^ Gerhard Paul: Mushroom Clouds. Origin, structure and function of a media icon of the 20th century in an intercultural comparison. In: Gerhard Paul (Ed.): Visual History: a study book. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006, ISBN 3-525-36289-7 , p. 243. ( digitized from GoogleBooks)
  28. a b "Radical America": US icons of the German '68 . In: Spiegel Online
  29. ^ Gerhard Paul, p. 10.
  30. Exhibition “Images in the Mind. Icons of contemporary history "
  31. Lisa Respers France: Fawcett 'last of the iconic pinup girls'. In: CNN . June 30, 2009, accessed September 2, 2019 .
  32. Fergus Sheppard: 70s poster icon is back, so anyone for Tennis Girl? In: The Scotsman , July 6, 2007, accessed June 15, 2017.
  33. ^ Gerhard Paul, pp. 8, 5
  34. Dalí icon . In: ; Retrieved November 24, 2011.
  35. MM - The Icon Marilyn Monroe ( Memento from January 3, 2011 in the Internet Archive )
  36. Klaus Meier: The simple, true copying of the world. Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2006, ISBN 3-525-20597-X , p. 131. ( Digitized at GoogleBooks)
  37. ^ Klaus Meier: Journalism. UTB, 2007, ISBN 978-3-8252-2958-0 . P. 111. ( Digitized at GoogleBooks)
  38. ^ Gerhard Paul, p. 12, 1
  39. Hostage - Hanns Martin Schleyer in the hands of the RAF. (PDF; 208 kB) In: , accessed on December 7, 2012
  40. Patricia Leavy: Iconic Events: Media, Politics, and Power in Retelling History. Lexington Books, Lanham 2007, ISBN 978-0-7391-1519-0 , pp. 76 ff.
  41. The Power of Images of Terror. In: , accessed on July 5, 2012.
  42. Photos from Abu Ghraib: The Hooded Men. In: Spiegel Online , March 21, 2006, accessed January 5, 2015.
  43. Tortured truth. In: The Economist , May 15, 2008, accessed January 5, 2015.


  1. Liselotte Strelow: Joseph Beuys. 1967.
  2. ^ Robert Capa: Pablo Picasso and Françoise Gilot on the beach. 1948.
  3. Roya Nikkah: Marilyn Monroe's 'Seven Year Itch' dress to go on show at V&A . In: , October 14, 2012; accessed on January 5, 2015.
  4. Baudouin I. In: ; Retrieved June 7, 2015.
  5. jump to freedom. 1961.
  6. Sven Simon: Warsaw kneeling . 1970.
  7. Farrah Fawcett in a red bathing suit . 1976.
  8. Tennis Girl . 1978.
  9. Afghan Girl Photo . Debra Denker: Along Afghanistan's War-torn Frontier . Report from June 1985 on, April 2002 (English)
  10. Benno Ohnesorg. 1967.
  11. ^ Photo of the shooting of Nguyễn Văn Léms
  12. Kim Phúk. 1972.
  13. ^ Columbine Shooting Security_Camera