101 Cliches of Photography
Years ago, the often cantankerous jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris published, among his other works on musical methodology, a work entitled "The 101 Cliches of Jazz". In one of my cantankerous moods it occurred to me that Photography could be viewed through a similar lens.
Definition from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia:
"The term cliché is a phrase, expression, or idea that has been overused to the point of losing its intended force or novelty, especially when at some time it was considered distinctively forceful or novel. It is generally used in a negative context."
So we are speaking here of overused images in photography. As Mike Johnston pointed out in his 2003 article
and the response
to that article, beginning photographers are often interested in making photographs that will draw the comment "looks professional" or "looks like a postcard". Then, this is reinforced in camera clubs as members try to please contest judges who tend to traffic in a narrow set of "rules" by which to judge "good" photographs, and they are reinforced further by a community of peers with similar ambitions. I would add that the typical camera club member also has a very narrow view of the history of photography, often limited to pretty calendars, nature and/or wildlife magazines, popular photography magazines, Sierra Club publications, etc. This is all perfectly fine if one is satisfied with engaging in the phtographic equivalent of making needlepoint "Bless This House" samplers. But for the photographer who wishes to engage the world in a more serious grasp or seeks some level of self-expression exercise of the advice of the legendary art director Alexy Brodovich is required: "if you look through the viewfinder and see a photo that you've seen before, DON'T TAKE IT!"
Now professional photographers take cliched photos as well - the street photographer, the avant-gardist, no one is really immune. Photographers who allow market forces to trap them in a recognizable style begin to repeat themsleves and, in essence, their work becomes their own cliche. A cliche is a combination of subject matter and treatment. One can take a cliched subject but apply a new treatment that elevates it above the level of the cliche. Just as in music there are only 12 tones and the constraints of certain psycho-acoustical reactions, there are only a finite number of categories of visual subject matter, although it might be difficult to enumerate them exhaustively.
So, I propose to begin a list that may stretch to 101 or beyond to 1001 or whatever. You are free to add to this list. For each identified cliche (which can be either or both subject and treatment) there are historic photos (including perhaps your own, dear reader) that transcend the label of cliche. If you are sufficiently passionate about some historical photo such that you are moved to mention it, please do so only if you can supply a justification as to why it transcends cliche that is more illuminating than it is just your opinion.
Gary Winogrand (according to discussions with a former student of his) took the position that effect of stacking up enough cliches in one photo could be transcendent. An interesting proposition, but tricky, I would say.
I use this kind of thinking in the photos I take. Being an intense student of the history of photography I am very aware of the legacy that may attach itself to the image in my viewfinder. The trick is to use this as inspiration to find a way to differentiate the opportunity at hand from the photos that have preceeded us. Take the potential crush of history and squeeze something new out of the mix.
So, at any rate, here goes!
Sunsets/Sunrises (depends on your sleeping habits I suppose) Can't we declare a moratorium?
Babies - pretty babies, ugly babies, babies whose facial expressions seem "grown up"
Animals - especially baby animals - puppies and kittens and other furry creature in particular, but all young offspring, including those whose facial expressions
echo human expressions, this goes double for animals with big eyes, ears, noses, or tongues
Bees on flowers taken with macro lenses, double penalty points for a misplaced shallow depth of field
Autumn Leaves - on trees of course, but double penalty for leaves floating in a stream or lake
Rocks in Sand - with or without water wetting part of the scene or curling around the stones, extra penalty for wisps of seaweed
Reeds in a lake silhouetted against the light of the rising or setting sun
Geometric vistas formed by the patterns of contour farming
White fences - throw in gates, porticos, doorways, arched entrances
Over-saturated photos - this can be a way to double up on a cliched subject
The application of any "artistic" filter effect from Photoshop, ditto above on the doubling up
Weather-beaten barn boards, double penalty for faded red paint
On the street - the homeless, beggars, double penalty for the blind or crippled, triple penalty for the foregoing if holding a musical instrument
Any photo where the subject seems to be the existence of repeated colors within the frame, double penality if the color is red
Vistas of mountaintops fading into the distance, double penalty when combined with a sunset or sunrise
Deer in meadows
Graveyards - double penalty for fog
Blackened skies in daylight photos - have you noticed that in night photos the sky is seldom the blackest part?
Any photo that can be described by invoking the name of a historic photographer (Ansel Adams, Minor White, Diane Arbus - including some of their own.)
I invite you to join in. This can be fun and marvelously cathartic.