Musings on: cliché in photography
“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, and even, to the point of being trite or irritating, especially when at some earlier time it was considered meaningful or novel.” Wikipedia
Using the above definition I can, unfortunately, state that:
“every image is a cliché, all you need is the right perspective”.
I need to define ‘right’ in the above statement. In this context it means some combination of: familiarity with the subject matter, when presented as a photograph; an attitude which decries such familiarity; and belief that anything repeated too frequently is in some way invalid, or at least less valid.
My overall point in this article will be that the perspective issue makes the above, bold and emboldened, statement accurate, which further implies that trying to work out what is, or is not, a cliché is, at best, unhelpful.
The origin of this article
This musing on cliché in photography started off a few months ago in Northumberland. For anyone who’s unaware, the coast of Northumberland is well-endowed with some very fine and highly varied castles; it may well not be possible to be both on said coast and also unable to see a castle, either to the north or to the south (assuming that it’s light, with clear weather, and that you’re not hiding behind a boulder, that is). Not only that, but there are some huge and impressive beaches to complement the various ruins and still-inhabited fortifications, and these are themselves often enhanced by threateningly crashing waves and dark skies. In other words, the area lends itself both to a certain type of shot and to not-infrequent use of the word cliché.
Early on during my week in Bamburgh, staying in a house overlooking its castle, I was joking with my fellow photographer friends that we couldn’t include castles in any images; too clichéd. Except – I was only half joking since, from the perspective of someone who spends a fair amount of time on photography-related social media, castles on the Northumbrian coast have been well-covered already; I really didn’t feel terribly inspired to use them in images.
Fortunately, at least for me, I overcame this self-inflicted objection and did capture a shot including one of the castles. It may not be especially original in photography circles, but it was, to me, a new subject; something I’d not done before. Whilst it doesn’t further photography as a whole, it furthered my photography in some small way. So, returning to perspective, or perhaps context: whilst the image I created is a cliché when considered in the set of all images ever made, it’s not so, and is therefore ‘valid’, in the rather smaller set comprising images made by me. I think this is a critical distinction.
And my argument is …
That brings me to what has become the point of this article, a point reached by much genuine musing on the subject over the last couple of months. The widespread exhortation, on the web and other media, to avoid cliché in photography, evidenced in numerous articles describing how to avoid the ‘problem’, is itself becoming a cliché and is conceivably counter-productive.
A quick search and some skim reading produces several obvious candidates in the wealth of lists describing ‘photographic clichés to avoid’. Let’s pick the most commonly cited example to start with: sunsets. It’s undoubtedly true that sunsets fit the definition well for many people, especially for many photographers: they’re ubiquitous! Conversely, many non-photographers, quite possibly most non-photographers, do enjoy pictures of sunsets. Not only that, but from a learning point of view they’re quite informative: I certainly recall experimenting with how my first camera handled being pointed at the Sun and coming to understand more about exposure from doing so, as well as about the effect of the shape and size of the aperture; all useful stuff, even if the images were far from novel.
At the opposite extreme, I read an objection somewhere, very recently, to the ‘cliché’ of blocks of glacial ice at Jökulsárlón in Iceland. As a follower of photographic social media, I know where that comment comes from: Jökulsárlón is currently a very popular place to visit. That, however, perfectly illustrates my earlier point about perspective and context being critical to terming something a cliché: I would be amazed if any non-photographer, shown such an image, would consider it clichéd! Given time, naturally, the glacial lagoon and its melting ‘bergs may reach the lofty heights of sunsets on the cliché scale, or at least be in the same general order of magnitude; right now, most people have never heard of it, nor seen images from it. In other words, it’s only a cliché to a relatively small, self-selected audience; photographers themselves (and then only to a subset of those!).
The logical conclusion of defining things as clichéd
So, both long-standing subjects and relatively new subjects can be derided. To what end? The common theme is advice to ‘avoid these subjects in order to be original’. How does that work then? After reading just a few anti-cliché articles, I’m fairly confident that there is little left in the real world which I could conceivably use as a subject for an image! If people follow the admonitions of these lists then the remaining subjects will rapidly diminish, leaving nothing whatsoever as permissible!
Of course, only ‘serious’ and ‘enthusiast’ photographers read such articles. Let’s assume that they all followed the advice given. Instantly, the only sunsets captured as images would be by ‘non-serious, non-enthusiast’ photographers …. Sunsets, et al, are popular subjects since people like them and because they’ve been used in the past to produce pleasing imagery. Surely there must still be potential to create a sunset image which adds something positive to the collective pot of such pictures? If so, then perhaps ‘serious’ and ‘enthusiast’ photographers are best-positioned to attempt to do that, even if the vast majority of images will, indeed, be redundant beyond their creator and his/her friends and contacts. The alternative, taken to the extreme, is that sunsets would only be captured by people less interested in photography. We’d still have lots of them, just with, arguably, a lower average quality.
I should point out that this article is at least slightly tongue in cheek; ultimately, none of this really matters. Of course, I do, personally, consider some subjects to have been a little over-used and I’m less inclined to use them in my images; but I’m not about to advise people not to photograph them! Their undesirability is solely my perspective; others may well have a different and equally valid view.
It seems to me that the very existence of a personal perspective on something as being a cliché will encourage photographers who want to be creative and original to find something else to capture. Importantly, those people probably don’t need to be told to do so, nor told what is and is not considered a cliché! Quite possibly, lists of things not to photograph will only succeed in discouraging people from photography altogether; people who might otherwise have worked things out for themselves, given time, and become more inventive in their choice of where to point their cameras.
Is there any upside to these lists at all?
After reading the various anti-cliché sites I can only see one real benefit to be derived from them: they do serve to reveal what other people consider cliché. If you’ve created an image of – let’s not be specific here – ‘thing X in weather Y’, it might be nice to know that the combination of X and Y is actually very well known and merely original in your experience, not to humankind as a whole. On the basis that knowledge is always good – itself debatable of course – knowing about the existing popularity of the X/Y combination may avoid embarrassment.
To me, however, even that benefit is at best rather spurious. Surely, it’s far better to take your own path through development as a photographer: start with the clichés if you feel like it; try to improve on what’s been done before; and maybe find that your vision develops in a more original way as you learn to see things in the World as potential images. Reading lists of things to avoid seems to me to be far too prescriptive. Not only that, but I enjoyed spending time photographing the Sun going down over Morecambe Bay when I started out ;-) Surely, that is a significant part of the point of practising photography?
Don’t seek other people to tell you what is and what isn’t a cliché or what you can and cannot photograph; that is itself clichéd and probably unproductive. Instead, work out for yourself what elements of the landscape you can use to make images. If that involves lots of well-photographed subjects along the way, don’t worry about it! There’s certainly less chance of the resultant images being considered ‘art’ if you choose clichéd subjects, but it’s merely more challenging to produce something noteworthy, not necessarily impossible. In any case, in a world where, it seems, everything can be considered to be a cliché if you choose the right perspective, there is really little choice …
To finish, here’s a shot of some tobacco leaves drying in a barn in Cuba; I’m sure that’s never been done before ;-)
15 Responses to “Musings on: cliché in photography”
aha, never heard of that expression, but is true. some things are photographed to death..
but there is always a new amateur/professional photographer who has not walked,driven,flown miles to see a specific thing and then it is a feather in his/her cap because they got the picture they wanted for themself..
Agreed Gary – it’s the distinction between publication and personal usage in that case I think.
Well said Mike. If we never took a photograph because we feared it was cliched then we’d take very few photos and never develop.
I found this metaphor useful in addressing the fear of copying others:
The Helsinki Bus Station Theory: Finding Your Own Vision in Photography
Thanks Andrew, and thank you for the link. The bus station metaphor really is a very good one, and I like the Swiss mountain analogy too, with continual loss of sight of the objective followed by seeing greater objectives once it’s reached.
Interesting piece to open a debate Mike. You could write a book on it.
To me most viewers of photographic images are not visually literate but like what they like including cliche, which is why it sells to the masses and is used as the quickest possible path to illustrate and sell things (like a slap round the face). I would argue that cliche is a perception created from a certain perspective, in other words until a viewer has seen a volume of similar images or copies the cliche does not exist.
Thanks Andrew for sharing the Helsinki bus station theory – I think I must have caught too many taxis!
Cheers Jezz. A book: hmmm…..it might just be a very niche market I suspect; I anticipate sticking to an essay or two ;-) I totally agree with your point, which is exemplified starkly by the Icelandic beach phenomenon right now.
Very interesting read and a topic I used to spend quite a bit of time pondering. I’ve since turned my back on fears of being cliché entirely and instead concentrate on my enjoyment of photography and the things that interest me. I love to visit even the most over-photographed locales if nothing more than to have my own image of the place. For me it isn’t about avoiding the cliché but about getting it over with quickly to be able to explore any other options that might exist…if I am able to visualize them at the time. When one starts to really consider the notion of “cliché” it becomes increasingly difficult to identify opportunities for landscape photography writ large to really surprise anymore. (Funny thing happened to me this past week. A friend of mine tipped me to a panorama-focused contest and I decided to submit a few items. Upon entering, I spent some time and flipped through all of the more than 1400 entries posted online and was gobsmacked that my image of Lochan na Stainge and Meall a Bhuiridh was the single, solitary image of Rannoch Moor in the bunch. Not even a single Stob Dearg, Old Man of Storr or Durdle Door either! Instead there may have been at least 5 or more of each of some of the more recognized arches from The NP in the US. Turns out my image of Rannoch Moor, that might be 1 of 100 in the next Take a View contest, ends up being quite unique insofar as subject matter in that particular group of photographs and photographers. I don’t know why exactly but I just found that interesting)
Thanks for commenting.
Quite right too; much better to just go to places and have a look then see where your own view takes you from there. As you say, and as I alluded to, it’s pretty impossible to find any subject outside intimate landscapes which would not be considered a cliché by some subset or other of people, especially if those people are photographers.
That’s a highly amusing anecdote too. My guess is that the inverse is happening there: people are seeking to avoid the obvious subjects, thinking that there will be many of them, and in so doing they’re using more difficult / expensive to get to subjects which themselves turn out to be still ‘obvious’. That must be especially galling!
[First apologies if this reply appeared a number of times, WordPress logins rather confused.]
I decided to stop telling my wife that I love her because it is such a cliché.
Then, when our four year-old daughter started telling me she loved me, I told her not to use that phrase because people would think her unoriginal.
No, I didn’t do either of those stupid things.
What I did do the other day, though, was write a short and nowhere near as thoughtful and articulate blog post about not avoiding cliché. You didn’t get the idea from me, did you? :@}
I am, in fact, currently engaged on a mission to capture a large number of “clichéd” images of the land and cityscape around Melbourne. In the process, I am educating myself about unfamiliar—to me—territory and taking on useful ballast—and ballast *is* useful.
A well written and sensible article, Mike. Worrying about whether or not a photograph would be a cliché gets in the way of enjoyment, personal development, and, as you say, is a pointless cliché.
If you make it to Australia, I’ll be happy to take you to some really good cliché vantage points before we consume some clichéd beverages.
[Afterthought: the word “iconic” is sometimes useful in such arguments.]
It did appear twice…. let me know if this is the ‘wrong’ one I’m replying to, though they look identical.
Good to hear from you. I’ve been reading your blog posts so I’m vaguely up to date, though I read the ‘Lengthy rationalisation …’ the day after I published this article in fact ;-) The inspiration for my piece came from Jezz, who commented above; it just took me a really long time to work out what I thought about the whole subject! Odd that I didn’t use the word ‘iconic’ anywhere; somewhat remiss of me really, though perhaps there is a sub-genre of cliché involving the photographing of iconic views, artefacts, etc. which is worthy of a post in its own right?
Even had I concluded differently, I think your rationale for visiting all these places is extremely strong in your situation. Quite apart from that, the pier, which I think I commented on in its Flickr incarnation, looks excellent; I’d certainly be down there. That blue pathway’s really rather a good subject too.
It’s not inconceivable that I might make it to Australia one day and if I do I’ll take you up on the offer; thanks!
Best of luck in your icon-quest. Mike
I have another story to share regarding the topic of cliches. I know a very keen amateur tog who was approached by a London ad agency a few years back. They had found his website and contacted him in the hopes of using some of his images for a series of Royal Mail stamps. This particular tog started in the artistic deep end and had early on made the decision to not make imagery including cliche/iconic locations such as Bamburgh Castle, Stob Dearg, etc. of course the story ends with a let down because the stamp series was intended to showcase just such iconic British treasures and this keen tog had nothing in his portfolio to offer them. They weren’t interested in intimate landscapes and sought beautiful photographs of identifiable landmarks. He was quite disappointed in that, even for cliches, it would have been wonderful to have a set of images commemorated in such a way. That event represents a marked change in the attitude of this photographer and he now chooses to make images that please him regardless of subject matter. He does try to find new “twists” where possible but the next ad agency that comes along will find him far more prepared. Incidentally, I believe that David Noton eventually got the Royal Mail stamp series. [Footnote: Yes, the tog was me…groan]
Now *that* is certainly a salutary lesson! It’s not an angle I’d thought of but it’s certainly a very worthwhile consideration. I had a far less extreme but similar issue last year when a charity wanted ‘snowy shots of the dales’. I have lots, but only my early ones are ‘classic’ and ‘iconic’, and they’re not technically that great – slightly different reason, but same result as you :-\ Definitely worth bearing in mind!
I don’t think there are clichèed locations; merely clichéed approaches to photographing popular locations. Take the infamous Buchaillie Etive Mor mountain. There are so many images shot with those falls in the foreground that every time I see one I groan. It’s not that they are bad photographs per se, just that the photographer has seemingly made little effort to find something different or, God forbid, original to say about the location. That’s the problem for me. It’s simply lazy photography.
OK, I hold my hands up. I do have one or two images of iconic locations from the ‘standard’ viewpoint in my portfolio but I do generally try my best to do something different. Nobody’s perfect, after all. ;0)
That’s a good distinction, Jools. I have a shot of that very mountain and those [mighty] falls, just before the dead tree fell over, though I don’t plan on ever putting it anywhere than on a hard drive. I was lured into it having stopped off and wandered over to ‘see what all the fuss was about’. I prefer my preceding images of the 11 photographers lined up making the same shot!
As you say, standard shots of iconic locations are often good in themselves, but, sadly, familiarity breeds contempt and all that, and the exposure such specific views receive currently, in large part due to the ubiquity of social media, is simply too great for any impact they originally, and intrinsically, have to actually last :-\ Ah well – makes things more challenging and thus more fun :-)
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