This past week, I saw a link on Facebook to a personal blog site with a reference to “cliché photos.” Naturally, a photo oriented post catches my interest. I clicked on it and the link was to a request to post your idea of what is the “most cliché” photographic subject (it was actually couched in terms of a list of the “worst subject-matter clichés in photography). I guess, according to the list, my Lombard Street image is a twofer. Certainly Lombard Street has to make the list of “cliche” photographs. And oh, those flowers. 🙂
The whole idea of creating such a list strikes me as a rather worthless exercise. But to my own surprise, I felt mildly offended. As I thought more about it, I wondered about the idea that was being posited, and it just doesn’t hit home. I will be the first to acknowledge that I have created my share of images that could be characterized as “clichéd,” and perhaps I am just being hyper-sensitive, but I have also made my share of images of the subjects on this so-called “cliché” list.
With perhaps a few exceptions, a photographic subject cannot be cliche’
The word, interestingly (or not, depending on what may or may not interest you 🙂 ) comes from the French word for a type of printing (or printing press – also interestingly called a “stereotype”). In modern usage, it is defined in the dictionary as a noun, which is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.” The word has also become acceptable to use as either a noun or an adjective. Wikipedia defines the word in the following way: “A cliché or cliche is an expression, idea, or element of an artistic work which has become overused to the point of losing its original meaning or effect, even to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” (emphasis mine). Waterfalls are on the list, too. Don’t you just hate this one?
Pretty clearly pejorative in usage, and perhaps why it struck that proverbial raw nerve. The list includes such ubiquitous photo subjects (and real-world objects and natural ocurrences) as sunsets, flowers, waterfalls, old barns, reflections, lighthouses, and on and on (one poster even says any photograph of an entire country is cliché!). The list is 36 items long and counting. I reject the premise, as such a “list” implies that these subjects should be avoided.
My first objective is to make an image that I like
With perhaps a few exceptions, a photographic subject cannot be cliché. The way the photographer depicts it most certainly can. And, in my view, all of this is very subjective and completely dependent on the perspective of the viewer. When I make an image, my first objective is to make an image of the subject that I like. Somebody else may have already made that identical image. (see are there any unique images?). I once made an image of an “iconic” scene in Vemont that was all my own vision (of a scene that had been shot thousands of times of course). Months later a reader pointed out that the WalMart brand tissue box had my image on it and he hoped I was being well paid for it. When I looked at the box my heart skipped a beat. That was my image! But it really wasn’t on closer study, it was a different shot (but the shooter could well have stood in my footprints, or me his on the very same day). Was my image cliche’, or was it his that was cliche’ (thats rhetorical – no need to answer 🙂 )?
We all have a mental “bank” of images and particularly of images that have become so well-known that I have come to identify them as “iconic.” When I travel to a new place and know about an iconic subject, I still want to photograph it. Again, I will first make some images that I personally like. Then, aware that it is iconic, and therefore already been done, I start looking for unique shots and perspectives, using my own – possibly unique – vision. I have stood side by side with fellow shooters and framed up the same subject and been surprised at how different the “takes” we come away with are. There is simply nothing with making an image that has been done before (as long as you don’t pretend it is some unique new thing). According to the list, “flowers” are a top 3 cliche’. Of the millions of potential flower shot opportunities, there are apparently no unique perspectives that have any photographic worth. Guess I need to remove this framed print from my office.
I reject the premise, as such a “list” implies, that these subjects should be avoided
There is much to be said for making unique and creative photographic images. And that is a large part of what photography is all about. I think all of us who shoot seriously try to bring unique and creative vision to our imagery. Sometimes we are successful. But it certainly can be done with virtually any subject. So, I struggle with the concept of “cliché” in art – and even more, with the creation of a list of “cliché” subjects. Of all the responses, my favorite was “asking for a list is cliché.” :-). One would have to guess that images of the Blue Angels would be near the top of the “cliche'” list.
I don’t do much rah rah. And I try (albeit sometimes unsuccessfully 🙂 ), to give unsolicited advice. But, I’ll give some gratuitously here. Go out and find a subject that interests, intrigues, or even excites you. Don’t worry whether it is on a list, is trite, overshot, or whatever. Work with the subject and my your image of it. If you truly apply your own vision, it won’t be cliché.