Numerous theories of neural processing, often motivated by experimental observations, have explored the computational properties of neural codes based on the absolute or relative timing of spikes in spike trains. Spiking neuron models and theories however, as well as their experimental counterparts, have generally been limited to the simulation or observation of isolated neurons, isolated spike trains, or reduced neural populations. Such theories would therefore seem inappropriate to capture the properties of a neural code relying on temporal spike patterns distributed across large neuronal populations. Here we report a range of computer simulations and theoretical considerations that were designed to explore the possibilities of one such code and its relevance for visual processing. In a unified framework where the relation between stimulus saliency and spike relative timing plays the central role, we describe how the ventral stream of the visual system could process natural input scenes and extract meaningful information, both rapidly and reliably. The first wave of spikes generated in the retina in response to a visual stimulation carries information explicitly in its spatio-temporal structure: the most salient information is represented by the first spikes over the population. This spike wave, propagating through a hierarchy of visual areas, is regenerated at each processing stage, where its temporal structure can be modified by (i). the selectivity of the cortical neurons, (ii). lateral interactions and (iii). top-down attentional influences from higher order cortical areas. The resulting model could account for the remarkable efficiency and rapidity of processing observed in the primate visual system.