Musings on Photography

Cliche

Posted in process by Paul Butzi on July 6, 2008

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One bit of advice that you hear all the time is ‘avoid cliches’. This advice is repeated so often that it’s become something of a cliche itself.

I’ve never really understood it, myself. You’re standing before a glorious sunset, and you’re moved to take a photograph. You might be moved by the beauty of the scene, or by the unusual nature of the sunset, or by the desire to have a token to help you remember the moment. But, no matter, sunsets are cliches, and thus must be avoided. The world has enough photographs of glorious sunsets. Put down your camera, lest the cliche police take you away.

I think not. The risk of cliches when photographing isn’t so much that you’ll add to the extant collection of sunsets or puppies, or kittens in brandy snifters. The risk of cliches is that, because we’ve all been inundated by these ‘cliche’ images, often (but not always) if you’re making one of those photos, it’s because you’re making a kneejerk response to a scene instead of trying to get a bit deeper. If all of your photos are cliches, it’s probable that’s happening because you’re not getting past the superficial.

That’s not always bad. Sure, the world is supped full with photos of children blowing out the candles on their birthday cakes. You know it. I know it. And yet, the world is NOT suffering from a surfeit of photographs of YOUR CHILD blowing out the candles on his birthday cake on HIS THIRD BIRTHDAY. To anyone else, it’s a cliche. To you, it’s a significant image. If everyone else thinks it’s a cliche, why should you care? Answer: you should most definitely not care at all.

My thinking on cliche photography runs like this: when you catch yourself in the moment where the only image you can see to capture is the cliche, go ahead and take it. Film (or disk storage) is cheap. Take the photo, and then move on to the next one. The easiest way to get the cliche image out of your consciousness is to let the shutter go, and then move on. If you’re like me, if you don’t let the shutter go, that cliche image will just clog your mental pipe and in a weird sort of target fixation sort of way, the only image you’ll be able to contemplate is the one you don’t want to take. Just go ahead, take it, get it out of the way, and then try to move on beyond it. It’s the only thing that works for me

16 Responses

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  1. Andreas Manessinger said, on July 6, 2008 at 2:37 pm

    Paul,

    Actually I could not care less. When you begin worrying about clichés, you basically allow other people’s believes and judgments to set the rules for your life. It’s like blindly submitting to fashion. It’s a way of giving up your personality, or more likely, never having found one.

    I know that there is an enormous number of fantastic sunset or sunrise images (and an even much bigger number of not so fantastic ones), but neither do I know even a tiny fraction of them, nor are they my images. I care about some, about most I do not. Nothing of that stops me to protograph sunsets or sunrises when I feel like that.

    Well, just today I have an image of our cat on my blog, playing with a ball. Talk about cliché 🙂

  2. Nathan Chilton said, on July 6, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    I agree 100%, Paul. Sometimes you just have to make a “cliche” shot, or it will keep nagging at your mind. Just shoot it, and then you can consider what other possibilities may be available.

  3. Anita Jesse said, on July 6, 2008 at 6:08 pm

    The sound you hear is cheers from my corner. I wonder how many beautiful images would never have been made if everyone had for decades been foolish enough to listen to this tired and flawed advice. If all the space in one’s consciousness is taken up the job of the critic, how much energy is left for the artist?

    Paul, your advice rings true for me. Shoot, move on, and let the critics do their work later. If later I dump the picture, no loss.

    Andreas, I went straight away to collect my smiles from the cat and ball photo. I am delighted that you indulged in the cliche.

  4. Sean said, on July 6, 2008 at 7:47 pm

    Another interesting post Paul, and I am in agreement with you (as are the other two comments posted). You draw an interesting distinction between what are private photographs and what are public photographs: not in the sense of the images been visible or not, but in regard to the intended audience:

    ‘The world is NOT suffering from a surfeit of photographs of YOUR CHILD blowing out the candles on his birthday cake on HIS THIRD BIRTHDAY. To anyone else, it’s a cliche.’

    And I can think of nothing more boring than looking at birthday photos of someone I do not know, cannot relate to, etc. Having said this, however, such images do become interesting over time – witness the interest in found images, publications and web sites. These cliche images are historical not only for what they depict (clothing, hair styles, etc), but the manner of dipiction itself. The way in which the image manifests itself, the type of print, the type of material.

    Best, Sean.

  5. Rosie Perera said, on July 6, 2008 at 9:59 pm

    No matter how many sunset photos have been done, if you’ve never done any yourself, and you’d like to understand sunsets better, why not stop and take photos of them when you are moved by them? That’s one of the big reasons we photograph things. Not so much to leave an image for the world to so (though that sometimes does happen), but also to explore the world. Sunset photos may be clichés, but that’s only because so many people have been moved by sunsets and wanted to stop and photograph them. So what? If I’m moved by one too, am I supposed to leave it behind and deny something that is inherently human in me?

  6. Markus said, on July 7, 2008 at 2:34 am

    So true. My sunrise picture is the way I tried to capture the magic of a moment – and if I am good at it it’s a working picture regardless of all the sunrise pictures all around us, and it is worth having been taken. The task of the photographer is to transport the invisible things with the visible, to make the picture resonate with inner voices, inner tunes of the viewer. There are standard subjects for this, sunsets and kid’s pics and pets for example, where this on a superficial level already is easy, evoking positive reactions even through only a fraction of a second long glance, and that makes their power. A bad sunrise is still a sunrise, and for the hypocritical that positive reaction on a mediocre or worse picture is what makes him or her shout “cliché”.
    I never reflected about that ‘clog of my mental pipe’ – a well formulated idea that is quite appealing. Whenever I start photographing I try to get in that flow state where I do not consciously consider reactions on the pictures any more but try to delve into the situation and find the position and time where ‘everything falls into place’. If a sunset or sunrise comes along – and that happens quit often as changing light for me is the most attractive time of the day – I take this picture if the situation is good, else I leave it.
    Myself I was subjected to this rejection of cliché pictures for quite a time: Too many kids, pets, sunsets, flower macros when you browse for example through flickr. Now when I see them I look for those transcendent qualities in them. When they have them, they work for me. Regardless of subject.

  7. Andrew said, on July 7, 2008 at 7:00 am

    There’s nothing wrong with taking shots that are considered cliche. I’m sure EVERY photographer is guilty of that. The problem is when people want validation and recognition and a pat on the back for something that’s been done a zillion times before. Flickr is the prime example of that (yes I rag on it, and yes I’m a member). Taking cliched shots is part of the learning process, but at some point it’s time to wake up and realize what’s cliched (really not original) and what isn’t.

    A good rule that I heard on the radio about cover songs from a local radio host was, “If you’re going to play a cover song, you better take that song to a place it’s never been taken before.” I think that rule applies for photography as well. Once you get to a certain point, if you feel the need to take a cliched shot, you better take that shot to someplace it’s never been taken before. Add something new and original to it. Otherwise it’s probably just best to take the shot, bin it, and move on.

  8. Chuck Kimmerle said, on July 7, 2008 at 9:10 am

    After more than 150 years of photography, what’s NOT cliche? Street photography, mountainous landscapes, war, famine, rich, poor….it’s all been done. Some, of course, more than others. All we can do is to try to make such images ours by interpreting it in a way that is true to us, as individuals. Where photographers get into trouble is when they try to pass off sappy sentimentality as art.

    I agree somewhat with Andrew in this regard, but think he’s a bit too rigid. Photographs do need to be different or new to be meaningful, they just need to be honest, cliche or not.

    As far as Andrew’s music analogy, Celine Dion took AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long” to “to a place it’s never been taken before”. That place was, in the opinion of many in the music industry, the worst cover song…..EVER! Why did she fail? She wasn’t true to the music. She put herself above the song. A mistake than many of us make when shooting photos.

    So, cliche or not, if you’re true to yourself when shooting photos, you should not feel embarrassed or ashamed to publicly display your images. Just do not hope for, as Andrew so delicately put it, validation and recognition

  9. Andrew said, on July 7, 2008 at 9:30 am

    @Chuck, yes I caut that Celine Dion cover of AC/DC…. she took that song to a place it never should have been!

  10. Sean said, on July 8, 2008 at 2:02 am

    A sunset of a different kind:
    http://photographylot.blogspot.com/2008/06/martian-sunset.html

  11. Rakesh Malik said, on July 8, 2008 at 9:30 am

    I actually mentioned something like this to a friend when we went to Natural Bridge in Virginia to do some photography a year and a half ago. I had done some research on the area, but I had never been there, so I naturally had several well-used shots in mind.

    When I got there, I did the natural thing; I first shot the “cliche” view without really worrying about whether or not it was a cliche, and then I shot several of my own. Most of them ended up being failures, but for technical flaws — mainly exposure problems, because I was relatively inexperienced at shooting with film.

    One of them, though it has a small compositional flaw in it (I snipped the curve of the leading line with the edge of the frame… and I didn’t catch that until I got the neg back from the lab), has gotten a lot of positive feedback from everyone who’s looked at it.

    It has worked pretty well for me, though I also like hiking, so I get myself into locations that aren’t as well known.

    Even if it’s a cliche, relax and let it be your take on that cliche 🙂

  12. rvewong said, on July 10, 2008 at 7:42 am

    For every cliche there is a reason behind it.

    I would say, it is worthwhile getting to know it and experience it for yourself.

  13. Sean said, on July 10, 2008 at 11:21 am

    At one time I worked as a saucier in a professional kitchen. Every Sunday I would create another large batch of Hollandaise sauce for the legion of Eggs Benedict that we sold. It never once occurred to me that I shouldn’t be making Hollandaise sauce because it had been done before, and by better chefs. All I knew was that this was my sauce, and that each week I was striving to improve over the previous week. A better ingredient. More subtlety or brashness in the seasoning. A better job of clarifying the butter. Every week was a new challenge that I looked forward to and enjoyed.

    So I just don’t get it when someone tells me that my sunset image is a cliche. It’s my image. It’s my interpretation of the event. It’s me who experienced the beauty of the sunset and who enjoyed its creation. I intend to keep creating these images, without a concern for how many more cliches I’m creating.

    There’s no shame in revisiting old comforts and familiar experiences, just as there’s no shame in ordering Eggs Benedict every Sunday.

  14. Chuck Kimmerle said, on July 11, 2008 at 9:21 am

    “So I just don’t get it when someone tells me that my sunset image is a cliche”

    There’s a difference between creatively shooting a subject that is cliche, and shooting an subject in a way that is cliche.

    If we’re not happy with how others perceive our work, we have essentially two options. We can ignore their criticisms and continue to shoot in a way that makes us happy, or we can take such criticisms into account as we work and attempt to alter (improve?) our images to placate the critics. Both options are completely valid. Do whichever makes you happy. Caveat….there are very few of us who can ignore criticism in it’s entirety and wander happily along without second thought. Many claim they have that power, but most are just fooling themselves.

    That said, there is a distinct benefit to the latter option. By taking into account the criticisms of others, we can gain valuable insights to counter the emotional attachments we often gift to our images. We remember the beauty and our emotional reaction at the time the shutter snapped, but those personal memories are rarely transmitted within the image.

    So, if we’re tired of our images being labeled cliche and want to do something about it, we need to take such criticisms into account next time we’re out shooting and investigate non cliche ways to shoot otherwise cliche subjects.

  15. Chuck Kimmerle said, on July 11, 2008 at 9:23 am

    BTW, Sean, I was not referring to you when I wrote:

    “There’s a difference between creatively shooting a subject that is cliche, and shooting an subject in a way that is cliche.”

    That was meant as a response to the thread in general but, the way it was written, made it appear I was referring to you, alone. I was not.

    Sorry,

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