In an earlier blog post, I tried to figure out why we remember things, and what makes something memorable. I’d like to explore the latter further. I started this kind of unscientifically, by googling “most memorable images” and I stumbled upon “The Most Influential Images of All Time”. In it you’ll find Images from the 2014 Oscars selfie to Lunch Atop A Skyscraper. From Bosnia to Bandit’s Roost. From Milkdrop Coronet to A Man on the Moon.
IS there a unifying theme to every picture in the collection? Several show immense suffering and pain, but others show abstract things or moments of joy. They’re all historic, I suppose, but I think I can confidently say it’s not the fact that they happened that makes them so memorable. Well, I got curious, and I examined all 100, and I heartily recommend you do too if you get some time. They all have descriptions of how and when and why they were taken, and it’s a real learning experience. Some are remarkably old, and some have been taken in our lifetime. Some show humans, some show animals, some show abstractions. One shows every human alive at the time, and another still shows no humans. There’s catastrophe and miracles, and even everyday occurrences. People working, people playing, cats flying (That’s Dali). There has to be something that makes these images not only memorable, but universally memorable.
If you want to get to the satisfying conclusion, I’ll first say there isn’t one. There is no one unifying theme or method or geometry, or color to these images. The long and the short of it is, the lack of unification is the theme. You have such a broad spectrum of subject matter, emotion, shape, light, historical scope, and storytelling that it’s impossible to connect them all. What I found is that if you want to make an image memorable, you need to approach it with a higher level of sophistication than face or even symbolic value. It’s much like music or painting; if you want to sell your song or your painting, there needs to be nuance that goes into that. I couldn’t sell a recording of my shower concerts, or my classroom doodles, because sophistication goes into producing memorable or enticing art. For a great image, there needs to be depth, multiple layers that can be peeled back and enjoyed or pondered, and this is the rub. That ponderance is completely subjective. The image must at once have deep meaning but also an openness to interpretation. Just look back at all those images. Where’s the closure? They don’t show the end of that moment in time. You as the viewer bring your own thoughts and worldview with you into that moment, and that gives them timeless appeal; their interactivity and discoverable nuance the longer you look at them grants them adaptability. They can evoke raw emotion or silent contemplation, and they each have something to say. Sometimes it’s just one powerful word, and sometimes it’s a magnum opus of thousands of pages.