Above all else an iconic image is an expression of power. Think of Korda’s photo portrait of Che Guevara –starting life as propaganda for a dynamic young radical it wassucked into the incredible merchandise mill of capitalism. When Korda first photographed the Argentine radical we were exposed to at most 500 images a day. In the twenty first century that figure is well over 5000. It has never been harder to produce those iconic images that become entrenched in the cultural memory. Yet as the release of Beyonce’s pregnancy pics on Instagram over the last few days show, the power that they express has never been more concentrated.
Likeness have been made the Botticelli’s Venus and the Virgin Mary- but the real genus for Beyonce was Annie Leibovitz’s portrait of a pregnant Demi Moore. Appearing on the August 1991 front cover of Vanity Fair Moore’s artful nudity was a taboo-breaking step forward, challenging notions of decency and beauty, fame and femininity. Moore may be at the centre of the power nexus but basking in its glow were a star photographer and VF editor Grayton Carter. Leibovitz herself was enormously protective of the image, suing a parody of the cover that featured in the promotion of a Naked Gun spoof as if it were her body on display.
Beyonce may be channelling Moore- but she is the ultimate power owner. Social media has given celebrities the ability to publish on their platforms, bypassing the need for backroom deals with between agents and publishers. In 1991 these trade-off were a necessary expense for charging your star wattage. By 2017 the grid has been tapped at the source: Beyonce’s Instagram following outranks Vanity Fair’s circulation 20 to 1. The image itself, which has been liked over 9 million times, has no mention of photographer or stylist. It is entirely up to Beyonce whether or not to namecheck the designer of the lingerie featured. Queen Bey is sovereign.
The power dynamics may have shifted but it is doubtful that Beyonce’s family album have anywhere near the cultural impact of its predecessor. The power of social media –its ubiquity- is also its weakness. Where a provocative cover on one of the biggest household titles on the planet managed to insert a subject into the public conversation a post on your Instagram will be filtered through the silos of fandom. Media titles will pick them of course but their statement-value is immediately punctured by being second-hand. Whether a magazine front cover carries quite as much prestige as it did 25 years ago is another matter. To be fearured by Vanity Fair is to take part in a privileged tradition –from Marilyn to Caitlyn, Jackie to Diana. To post on Instagram is to follow in the footsteps of 600 million bums, dinners and dogs